By Tammye Nash, Staff Reporter
First of Five Parts
When James Byrd Jr., a disabled black man, was dragged down the backroads of East Texas until his body was torn to pieces, the gruesome details of the crime captured the nation's attention for weeks - and once again turned the spotlight on the subject of hate crimes.
Still, as in the past, as the horror of the crime dimmed, so has the public's focus on the broader issue.
But the problem is not fading away like the publicity surrounding the Byrd murder, activists warned. And Byrd's murder is only the most gruesome of a type of crime characterized by thousands of "lesser" incidents that help set a mood in which crimes like the Byrd murder can occur, they added.
"Violence against anyone is wrong," said Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign. But crimes committed out of hate have an added dimension of terror, she said.
According to Stachelberg, the damage done by these crimes can't be measured in physical damage alone, because a hate crime "sends a message not just to the victim of that particular crime, but to the whole community that victim represents. And it is a devastating message, because these people are victimized just because of who they are, not because of what they've done."
Stachelberg and other activists also note that hate crimes statistics continue to rise, despite a downturn over recent years in overall crime statistics, with anti-gay hate crimes continuing to comprise a significant percentage of the number of hate crimes reported. And still, lawmakers at the state and federal levels continue to balk at approving new hate crimes laws or improving existing ones, especially when it comes to including sexual orientation in the protected classes.
Currently, eight of the 52 United States have no form of hate crimes law, and 21 have hate crimes laws that do not include sexual orientation.
The federal Hate Crimes Statistics Act, which became law in 1990 and was re-authorized in 1996, requires the FBI to collect statistics on hate crimes on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. Although the FBI is required to collect and analyze statistics from local and state law enforcement agencies, those state and local agencies are not required by law to track such statistics - a serious flaw that activists say results in numbers that do not accurately reflect the true extent of the problem.
According to the FBI's 1996 Hate Crimes Statistics Uniform Crime Report, program participation by local, state and federal agencies in 1996 increased by 18 percent compared to 1995. Still, the report acknowledges, the task of compiling the statistics "has not been easy . . . . hate crime is by its very nature often difficult to identify."
That report documented a total of 8,759 hate crimes in 1996. Of that total, 5,396 or 61.6 percent were race-based, 940 or 10.7 percent were ethnicity/national origin-based, 1,401 or 16.6 percent were religion-based, and 1,016 or 11.6 percent were sexual orientation-based. Six incidents, or 0.07 percent of the total, were listed as being based on multiple biases.
Of the hate crimes based on sexual orientation included in the 1996 FBI report, 927 were anti-gay male; 185 were anti-lesbian; 94 were "anti-homosexual"; 38 were anti-heterosexual, and 12 were anti-bisexual.
Also according to the report, 88 of the 915 Texas law enforcement agencies participating in the FBI effort reported 350 hate crime incidents in 1996. The report did not break the state-wide numbers down according to bias motivation, but did do so for cities. As a result, the report lists 13 hate crimes based on sexual orientation in Dallas and seven in Fort Worth.
The report also lists a total of 10,706 chargeable offenses (an incident can include more than one offense; for example, one incident can include a verbal threat and a physical assault, thus making two offenses); 11,039 victims and 8.935 known offenders.
FBI statistics show that hate crimes overall have risen each year since records started being kept in 1991, except for 1994. In 1991, there were 4,588 incidents reported total, with 8.9 percent of them anti-gay. The numbers went up to 6,623 total and 11.6 percent anti-gay in 1992, and to 7,587 total and 11.3 percent anti-gay in 1993.
The overall total number of hate crimes dropped in 1994 to 5,932, with 11.5 percent being anti-gay, but jumped again in 1995 to 7,947 total and 12.8 percent anti-gay.
Stachelberg pointed out that while anti-gay hate crimes make up less than 15 percent of the overall total of hate crimes, that percentage is still drastically out of proportion to the percentage of gays and lesbians in the total population.
"Even the highest estimates put gays and lesbians at about 10 percent of the population," she said. "But 11 percent of the hate crimes committed are committed against gays and lesbians."
Experts have suggested that the steady increase in numbers of hate crimes reported can be accounted for in part by increased participation by law enforcement officials and increased awareness on the issue among the general public.
Even with the increased participation by law enforcement agencies in the FBI's information collections efforts, hundreds of hate crimes slip through the statistical cracks, according to Rob Knight of the El Paso Anti-Violence Project.
The El Paso AVP is one of 14 such agencies around the country which collect information from and provide services to the victims of anti-gay hate crimes. The national AVP figures for 1996 document 2,529 anti-gay, -lesbian, -bisexual and -transgender hate crimes ranging from verbal harassment to murder - more than twice the 1,016 incidents the FBI recorded for the same year.
The 1997 AVP report documented 2,445 anti-gay hate crimes.
"We only have 14 organizations around the country, and most of them just serve certain specific areas," Knight said. "The FBI's efforts cover, say, 80 to 90 percent of the country, and they still get fewer reports than we do. That show's there is a serious problem with under-reporting."
The problem, Knight suggested, stems from an ongoing reluctance among many gays and lesbians to report hate crimes against them to police, motivated by mistrust and fear of secondary victimization at the hands of police. National AVP statistics also indicate that the fear and mistrust may be well-deserved, with nearly half - 49 percent - of the victims who sought police assistance reporting problems with law enforcement. Some 37 percent said police response was indifferent, and 12 percent said police were verbally or even physically abusive.
"Gay people are just more willing to talk to other gay people when something like this happens," Knight said. "Traditionally, in most places, the relationships between gays and lesbians and the police have not been very good, and many victims of anti-gay hate crimes just don't want to take the risk of being outed or victimized again in some other way."
A Human Rights Campaign report on hate crimes points to the February 1997 bombing of a lesbian nightclub in Atlanta where five patrons were injured severely enough to be taken by ambulance to the hospital. One victim, however, refused treatment when she saw the media swarming in the hospital emergency room.
Both the 1996 FBI report and the 1996 AVP report indicate that the majority of anti-gay hate crimes are directed at persons instead of property, with AVP's Knight noting that the intensity of the violence in anti-gay hate crimes increasing dramatically.
The AVP statistics show that the number of anti-gay incidents which included at least one assaultive offense rose from 39 percent of the total in 1995 to 41 percent in 1996, with the 1996 incidents resulting in injury or death to 867 victims. Of the victims, 35 percent suffered serious physical injury, such as broken bones or permanent physical injury, or death. Another 58 percent required some type of medical attention, including 29 percent who received treatment in an emergency room or on an out-patient basis, 9 percent who were hospitalized, and 20 percent who needed but did not receive medical attention.
The FBI report lists 983 anti-gay hate crimes against persons, and 273 anti-gay hate crimes against property. The majority of the crimes against property - 215 - were crimes of destruction, damage or vandalism. The crimes against persons included two murders, 222 aggravated assaults, 287 simple assaults, and 472 acts of intimidation.
The increase in the severity of injuries, Knight added, is corroborated by the change in the types of weapons most commonly used in such attacks, from primarily thrown objects, such as bricks, bottles or rocks, in 1995 to primarily hand-held club-type objects such as metal pipes, baseball bats and other blunt objects, in 1996.
Stachelberg said that even those incidents that did not result in serious injury or damage should be considered as a serious part of a serious problem.
"Kids vandalizing someone's house or car is what leads to adults doing worse things, like assault and murder," she said. "Kids do these kinds of things because they are taught that it's okay, and unless they're taught differently, the severity of their crimes will continue to escalate. These so-called 'lesser' crimes are just as dangerous and damaging to our communities, because they give the indication that anti-gay violence is acceptable."
The FBI report does not break statistics down on a month-by-month basis, but Knight pointed out that the AVP's findings indicate a sharp rise in anti-gay attacks each year in June, when gay and lesbian communities around the country are celebrating Gay Pride Month.
"Our figures have proven that any time there is a very visible gay and lesbian presence in the media, it results in a backlash from people who are trying to force us back into the closet," Knight said. Each year, he said, the largest number of anti-gay hate crimes occur in June - with 301 incidents reported nationally in June 1996 - but other factors can figure in as well, he noted.
"We've noticed that the number of anti-gay hate crimes also went up drastically in March and April of 1997 when there was so much attention on Ellen DeGeneres' coming out, both in real life and on her television show," Knight said. He said March and April 1997 statistics were up 30 percent and 25 percent respectively, compared to the same period in 1996.
Stachelberg also noted the link in increased visibility by the community and increases in violence against the community, pointing out that in states where anti-gay referenda have been placed on the ballots, the numbers of anti-gay hate crimes have jumped.
As an example, she pointed to the 1995 murder of Oregon lesbian couple Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill, long-time business and life partners whose bodies were found bound in the back on their pickup truck about a week after they disappeared. The women had been active in the campaign to defeat an anti-gay referendum on the state ballot that year. Robert Acremant, the man who was convicted of and sentenced to death for killing the women, told reporters after the arrest he had killed them because he didn't like lesbians.
Knight said the AVP report indicated an increase in 1996 in the kinds of places where such anti-gay attacks occurred, with 25 percent occurring in a street or public place, 22 percent in or around the victim's private residence, and 13 percent in the workplace.
The FBI statistics showed similar results, with 31.2 percent of the incidents occurring in a residence or home, and 25.7 percent occurring on a highway, street, road or alley.
The FBI report indicated that most offenders in anti-gay hate crimes
are white, and the AVP report showed that primary offenders tend to be
teenagers and young adults, with 67 percent of the known offenders under
age 30. The percentage of offenders under age 18 was 21 percent, according
to the AVP, which placed the percentage of female offenders at 15.