This morning, instead of coming straight home from a beautiful weekend in Capitola, I made a pit stop in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. I had hoped to visit a couple of bookstores to get my newly published book on the shelves, and I also wanted to look into setting up some author events. It’s been several years since I’ve been to the Castro, and while some things have changed, much of it was comfortingly familiar. The Castro Theatre, with its imposing marquee, still showcases classic and indie films (“The Bad Seed” being the one I noticed today, its irony not lost on me). Harvey’s, named after the slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, still serves up food to the Sunday morning crowds. In contrast, its neighbor, A Different Light, the flagship gay and lesbian bookstore, has closed its doors. Two Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence roamed the sidewalks, chatting with passersby. The SF Cheer squad passed out flyers for a classic car event. And numerous gay male couples held hands openly as they walked down the street, occasionally stopping to talk with friends or acquaintances. This, I thought to myself, is what makes the Castro the Castro. It’s why so many LGBTQs (particularly gay men) flock to this neighborhood. It has an incredible neighborhood feel to it, where people are friendly and open and accepting. It’s why so many people consider it to be a safe haven.
And sadly, there probably is no true safe haven for sexual minorities in the United States – or anywhere else in the world, really. Hate crimes are very much a reality in the LGBTQ community. Over 30% of gay men have been victimized by a hate crime at some point in their lives. Between 12-15% of lesbians, bisexual men, and bisexual women have been the target of a serious hate crime. And 1 out of 1000 murders in the United States involves a transperson. And these crimes happen everywhere – at home, in the workplace, in other public places. Including “safe havens” like the Castro.
Here in Sacramento, while nothing like the Castro even remotely exists, there is an area a few blocks wide and a few blocks deep that locals refer to as “Lavender Heights.” A couple of gay and lesbian bars and clubs are in this area. The Lavender Library and Cultural Exchange is in the heart of Lavender Heights, as is the Sacramento Gay and Lesbian Center. This is our “safe haven” – which, last night, was very unsafe for a man, walking with an acquaintance, who was assaulted with homophobic epithets and then sustained a blow to the head with a heavy object. The perpetrators were a man and a woman in a silver Land Rover – perhaps roaming the area, looking to cause trouble.
What could possibly motivate someone to make a special trip to Lavender Heights at two o’clock in the morning to perpetrate such a violent act of hate? It doesn’t surprise me that there were two people in the car – hate crimes are far more likely to be perpetrated by groups of people, rather than by a single individual. There’s probably some degree of inhibition-lowering and social contagion when people who harbor sexual prejudice are around others who share the same beliefs. It also doesn’t surprise me that this crime was perpetrated by a male-female pairing – committing an act of hate against a marginalized group can help people secure their sense of belonging to the dominant group, and distance themselves more from the feared “other.” Nor does it surprise me that the victim was male – gay men are twice as likely than their lesbian or bisexual (male or female) counterparts to be victimized. And while there is no window into the souls of these individuals, I have to think that inflicting this powerfully violent act must alleviate some deeply rooted anxieties and fears. Why else would anyone project out such hate if it isn’t a reflection of one’s personal unconscious anxieties and conflicts?
There is a group here in Sacramento called the Lavender Angels, which is a volunteer late-night guide and street escort program, concentrating its efforts in the Lavender Heights area. (Incidentally, they are providing a volunteer training on Wednesday, October 6 – for more information, send an e-mail message to Lavender.Angels@saccenter.org). I think the Lavender Angels are such a gift to our community. At the same time, if we REALLY want to eradicate hate crimes against sexual minorities, we need to fundamentally change the culture that supports and encourages these crimes. If same-sex couples could just be regular couples, holding hands and walking down the street, anywhere in the U.S. (not just in the Castro), these crimes would diminish significantly. If more heterosexual people would speak up every time a homophobic slur is uttered, these crimes would diminish significantly. If heterosexual couples and families made their gay and lesbian neighbors feel safe to be open about their relationship status, these crimes would diminish significantly. Until then, no safe haven really exists.