October 7, 1998. A young man by the name of Matthew Shepard is robbed, pistol-whipped, and tied to a fence out in the Wyoming countryside. Five days later, he dies from severe head injuries.
My memory of that day is both sharp and fuzzy. I was a clinical psychology graduate student interning at UC Santa Cruz’s Counseling and Psychological Services. I had a meeting that morning with the director of what was then called the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Community and Resource Center. When I got there, the television was on, and Deb Abbott, the director, was crying. I remember feeling numb and shell-shocked the rest of the day – and for several days afterwards. He could have been my little brother, I thought to myself. It wasn’t until several weeks later, when my car broke down on I-5, that I realized it could have been me.
What I didn’t know on that day was that this wasn’t the first time Shepard had been victimized. Three years earlier, in 1995, Shepard was beaten and raped while on a school trip to Morocco, quite possibly because he was gay. Shortly after that incident, Shepard started having panic attacks and began experimenting with drugs, which likely continued until his death. In fact, there’s current (albeit controversial) speculation that his 1998 murder was the result of a drug deal gone bad, and that one of his killers, Aaron McKinney, was bisexual and had a previous sexual relationship with Shepard. Either way, Shepard’s murder was a major wake-up call, galvanizing the LGBTQ community to lobby for the passage of more inclusive and expanded hate crime legislation (the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act).
So now it’s October 2013 – fifteen years later. Have things gotten better?
Last year, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs published a titled “Hate Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and HIV-Affected Communities in the United States in 2011.” According to this report, the short answer to that question is: Yes and no. And the only reason I put the yes there is because . . . well . . . at least now the FBI tracks the number of LGBTQ-related hate crimes that occur.
According to the NCAVP study (which, by the way, is not based on FBI statistics), the highest hate crime victimization rates overwhelmingly involved gay men and transwomen – and both groups were more likely than others to require medical treatment after being victimized. LGBTQ people of color were disproportionately impacted by hate violence, particularly if they were young and/or transgender, and LGBTQ undocumented immigrants were at higher risk for experiencing physical violence.
Who the victims tend to be is not at all surprising to me – and FBI statistics, coupled with several additional research studies, confirm these findings. However, I think it’s particularly telling to examine who the perpetrators tend to be. Here’s what the NCAVP report found:
- Overwhelmingly, the majority of offenders tend to be men.
- In 2011, more than half of the perpetrators were white.
- Nearly 20% of offenders were friends or acquaintances of the victim, and 18% of hate crimes occurred in private residences (making it the most common location for hate crimes to occur).
- Police (yes, police) made up 9% of offenders.
Given that reality, it’s not surprising that, in the NCAVP study, half of the surviving victims chose not to report the incidents to the police. Moreover, if you look at the contrast between the victims and the perpetrators, it’s clear that people who pose the most significant challenge to the power structure are the ones who will be punished the most harshly for it. And the ones who stand the most to lose are the ones doling out the punishment.
When I talk about LGBTQ hate crimes in my classes, I sometimes get asked if I’ve ever been the victim of one – and the answer is yes, on two occasions. In 1998 (again, shortly after Matthew Shepard was murdered), someone smashed the headlights on my car. There were many other cars parked in the area, but mine was the only one with a rainbow flag sticker on the back. In the other incident, which occurred just a few years ago, someone (I suspect, for various reasons, a former neighbor) put a bumper sticker on my partner’s car that said “Chick Magnet.” Both incidents were unsettling (particularly the “Chick Magnet” thing – stupid and juvenile as it was, it was creepy to think that a neighbor who knew us probably did it). And in both cases, the police took the incidents seriously – in the “Chick Magnet” incident, the Sacramento Police Department sent the CSI unit to our house to take pictures and check for fingerprints. (I’m dead serious.) But neither incident was immediately life-threatening. I wasn’t beaten. I didn’t require any medical attention. And I didn’t become a murder statistic. Which makes sense – statistically, I don’t fit any of the “high-risk” categories.
Yet in other ways, I do fit a “high-risk” profile – and this is where Matthew Shepard’s murder comes full circle. Over the years, lots of people have asked me if I’ve ever been victimized for being queer, but no one has ever asked me if I’ve been a hate crime victim due to being female. Hate crimes routinely happen to all kinds of women – straight women, queer women, cis women, transwomen – because they are women. However, the FBI doesn’t track hate crimes due to sexism. And failing to name a reality significantly alters our perception of it.
When you look at crimes like rape and sexual assault (which, some argue, are examples of sexism-based hate crimes), they bear a chilling similarity to LGBTQ hate crimes. Males are most often the perpetrators, and while men of color are more likely to be incarcerated for these crimes, there’s evidence that indicates that White males are more likely to perpetrate these crimes against women. Rape and sexual assault is far more likely to be perpetrated by a friend or acquaintance than by a stranger, and it most often occurs at home. And most of these crimes go unreported; just like LGBTQ crime victims, many women choose to avoid being re-victimized – both literally and figuratively – by law enforcement and the judicial process.
Although tragic, Matthew Shepard’s murder broke the silence and invisibility of LGBTQ hate crimes – and paved the way for a greater sense of awareness. Yet if hate crimes are a way of keeping the existing power structure in place – the patriarchy, if you will – it’s high time for a deeper, more nuanced conversation about the powerful and the powerless.
On a side note . . . we kept the “Chick Magnet” sticker on the car.