July 4, 2008

Jesse Helms: “If You Want To Call Me A Bigot, Fine.”

Posted at 12:49 pm (Pacific Time)

I’m not going to put a lesbian in a position like that….
If you want to call me a bigot, fine.”

Jesse Helms, in response to President Clinton’s 1993 nomination of Roberta Achtenberg as an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

AP Photo

Future students of 20th-century US history may puzzle over a section of the 1990 Hate Crimes Statistics Act. After mandating the federal government’s annual collection of data about “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity,” the Act includes the following passage:

“SEC. 2.

(a) Congress finds that:

  1. the American family life is the foundation of American Society,
  2. Federal policy should encourage the well-being, financial security, and health of the American family,
  3. schools should not de-emphasize the critical value of American family life.

(b) Nothing in this Act shall be construed, nor shall any funds appropriated to carry out the purpose of the Act be used, to promote or encourage homosexuality”

This section of the Act is the legacy of Jesse Helms, who died today at the age of 86.

When the Hate Crimes Statistics Act was being considered by the Senate, Helms played a leading role in efforts to block it because it included antigay violence among the crimes to be monitored by law enforcement personnel. Aware of the bill’s popularity and having failed to remove sexual orientation from it, Helms attempted to thwart its passage by introducing an amendment that its supporters would find unacceptable but politically difficult to vote down.

The Helms amendment would have added the following language to the bill:

“It is the sense of the Senate that:

  1. the homosexual movement threatens the strength and survival of the American family as the basic unit of society;
  2. State sodomy laws should be enforced because they are in the best interest of public health;
  3. the Federal Government should not provide discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation; and
  4. school curriculums should not condone homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle in American society.”

Such tactics were typical of Helms, who regularly used his parliamentary skills to get his own way in the Senate. On this occasion, however, he was outmaneuvered by Senators Paul Simon (D-IL) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who proposed alternative language that was less antigay.

The Simon-Hatch amendment was approved before Helms’ amendment was considered, thus providing political cover for senators. By supporting the Simon-Hatch language, they could safely vote against Helms’ amendment without being labeled pro-gay and anti-family.

And that’s why the Hate Crimes Statistics Act includes statements about “the American family” and denials that it was intended to “promote or encourage homosexuality.”

Helms’ failure at preventing passage of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act was unusual. His mastery of Senate procedure, coupled with lawmakers’ fear of appearing pro-gay, frequently allowed him to succeed in enacting his anti-gay agenda.

When the US was first confronting the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, for example, Helms was instrumental in preventing the government from funding effective prevention programs among gay and bisexual men. The Senate twice endorsed his amendments prohibiting federal funds for AIDS education materials that “promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.” By constricting the scope of risk-reduction education, Helms’ actions were widely believed to have contributed to the epidemic’s rapid spread.

Throughout his 30-year tenure in the US Senate, Helms was consistently associated with antigay stands. Given this fact, as well as his longstanding opposition to racial equality and the race-baiting tactics he used in election campaigns throughout his career, it is a fairly easy matter to accept his invitation to label him a bigot.

Personal bigotry aside, however, Helms’ legacy includes the many institutional manifestations of heterosexism that he was able to implement during his years in the Senate. Through the laws he sponsored and those he helped to defeat, he created real hardships for sexual minorities while also fostering sexual prejudice in American society. And his efforts probably contributed to the spread of HIV in the United States and the infection and deaths of many gay and bisexual men.

On this Independence Day and the occasion of Jesse Helms’ death, it is fitting to note how personal bigotry combined with political power can enable one politician to do so much harm to so many people.

And, recalling the general unwillingness of elected leaders to stand up to Jesse Helms’ antigay campaigns over the years, it is appropriate to reflect upon the words attributed to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Copyright © 2008 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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June 11, 2008

The Lawrence King Murder: Arraignment on Thursday

Posted at 2:35 pm (Pacific Time)

Last February 12, Lawrence King, a 15-year old 8th grader, was murdered at his middle school in Oxnard.

He was in the school’s computer lab when 14-year old Brandon McInerney walked in and shot him at least twice in the head. King was unconscious when he was brought to the hospital and was declared brain dead the next day. He was taken off life support on February 14.

King had publicly come out as gay in the weeks before his murder, and he frequently violated gender roles by wearing make-up and jewelry to school. He was regularly teased by a group of male students that included McInerney. By some accounts, King teased and flirted with McInerney and some of his other tormentors.

McInerney is scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow in Ventura County on a charge of premeditated murder. The charge includes a penalty enhancement because the murder has been classified as a hate crime.

Among the issues likely to be raised in McInerney’s arraignment and trial are:

  • Whether he should be tried as a juvenile or, as Ventura County prosecutors intend, as an adult. He turned 14 — the minimum age at which a juvenile in California can be tried as an adult — on January 24, just weeks before the murder. In April, a coalition of 27 sexual minority and transgender rights groups urged that McInerney be tried in juvenile court.
  • Whether the Court will consider neuroscience data suggesting that adolescents engage in impulsive behavior because their brains have not completely matured. According to the Ventura County Star, McInerney’s defense attorney hopes to use such research to argue that he should be tried as a juvenile.
  • Whether school officials are partially to blame for not having dealt more proactively with the tensions between the two boys. This argument will almost certainly include assertions that Lawrence King should have been deterred from violating gender norms and being openly gay. This, in turn, is likely to spark discussion about the rights of sexual minority and gender-nonconforming youth to be safe in their schools.

It seems less likely that the trial will address broader questions about sexual stigma, which creates a cultural climate in which children, adolescents, and adults are routinely subjected to harassment and bullying if they violate conventions of gender and sexuality. That climate affects everyone, regardless of their own sexual orientation, because anyone can potentially be perceived as nonheterosexual. The wish to avoid being labeled as gay can lead individuals to enact sexual stigma against others through ostracism, ridicule, discrimination, and even violence.

Dr. Karen Franklin, one of the few researchers to have published original data on antigay behaviors and the perpetrators of antigay crimes, has posted an excellent discussion of these and other aspects of the case on her forensic psychology blog.

Copyright © 2008 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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September 13, 2007

Overkill in Alabama: All the Rage

Posted at 5:58 pm (Pacific Time)

The last two of Scotty Joe Weaver’s murderers have pleaded guilty.

Weaver was a popular 18-year old gay man in the southern Alabama town of Bay Minette, as recounted in the independent documentary film Small Town Gay Bar. Members of the local gay community reacted with shock when his charred body was found several miles from his 2-bedroom trailer home.

On July 18, 2004, Weaver had been beaten, cut, and strangled to death in his trailer. Some accounts reported he was nearly decapitated. The murderers were his roommates, Christopher Gaines and Nichole Bryars Kelsay, and Gaines’ friend, Robert Porter.

According to the Baldwin County District Attorney, “Weaver and Porter never got along because Porter had problems with Weaver’s homosexuality….” An entry in Porter’s court file noted that “Porter was asked if his participation in the murder was because Weaver was gay,” to which Porter replied in the affirmative.

After the killing, the three murderers drove around town while discussing how to dispose of Weaver’s body. They eventually took it to a remote trail off a country road, placed it face up on a blanket, urinated on it, and then set it afire. The body wasn’t discovered for four days.

Weaver’s murder evoked a sense of deja vu in Alabama where, five years earlier in Sylacauga, 39-year old Billy Jack Gaither was murdered in a crime that bore many resemblances to Weaver’s killing. On February 19, 1999, Gaither was kidnapped, his throat was cut, and he was beaten to death. His body was thrown on a pile of tires and set afire. Two men were eventually arrested: Steve Mullins pleaded guilty to capital murder and Charles Monroe Butler was found guilty by a jury. Both were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

One week ago, on September 6, Robert Porter pleaded guilty to killing Scotty Joe Weaver and was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment. Today, in a plea bargain, Kelsay pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Gaines pleaded guilty to capital murder last May and was sentenced to life in prison without chance for parole.

Overkill in Antigay Murders

The brutality that characterized the murders of Billy Jack Gaither and Scotty Joe Weaver isn’t unusual in killings of sexual minority victims. In a 1980 research paper, sociologists Brian Miller and Laud Humphreys reported findings from their study of 52 antigay murders whose descriptions they found through archival sources. The researchers noted the “gruesome, often vicious nature” of the crimes, which were considerably more likely to involve stabbing, compared to murders in the United States as a whole, and which frequently showed evidence of overkill — wounding far beyond what would be required to cause a victim’s death.

Miller and Humphreys noted,

“Seldom is a homosexual victim simply shot. He is more apt to be stabbed a dozen or more times, mutilated, and strangled. In a number of instances, the victim was stabbed or mutilated even after being fatally shot.”

Corroboration for this observation comes from another study. Michael Bell and Raul Vila, two Florida forensic pathologists, compared the autopsy reports of 67 male homosexual and bisexual homicide victims with those of 195 randomly selected male heterosexual victims. Each victim’s sexual orientation was determined by police reports. The two groups were matched for age and race.

Consistent with the Miller and Humphreys study, the researchers found:

  • The homicides of homosexual and bisexual men were objectively more violent than murders of heterosexuals.
  • Stabbing and other sharp-force injuries were the most common cause of death among the homosexual and bisexual victims, whereas gunshot wounds were the most common for the heterosexual victims.
  • The bodies of homosexual victims, on average, evidenced more injuries from blunt weapons, more fatal stab wounds, and injuries to more areas of the body than the heterosexual victims.
  • Homosexual and bisexual men were more likely than heterosexual men to have injuries in the face, head, neck, back, arms, and legs.
  • The percentage of cases with multiple causes of death – overkill – was greater among the homosexual and bisexual victims, although the difference was not statistically significant.

Why Overkill?

There are probably many explanations for the high levels of violence that often characterize antigay attacks. For example, overkill and related forms of brutality may indicate the extent to which sexual minorities are dehumanized in the minds of perpetrators. When attackers regard their victims as less than human, they’re unlikely to feel any inhibition about brutalizing them. Such denigration can ultimately be traced to the stigma that is attached to homosexuality in our culture.

The phenomenon of overkill also suggests that many perpetrators of antigay crimes experience extraordinarily high levels of emotion during the attack, which is expressed through extreme violence.

Research by Dr. Dominic Parrott, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgia State University, provides some insights about these emotions. He conducted a series of laboratory studies that examined the linkages among anger, sexual prejudice, and antigay aggression.

In one study, heterosexual male college students watched a sexually explicit video — half were randomly assigned to a video of two men in a sexual situation, whereas the other half watched a heterosexual couple. The participants’ levels of anger were measured before and after they viewed the video. Among the men who watched the male-male video, increased feelings of anger were strongly associated with high scores on a measure of sexual prejudice (which had been administered earlier). For men who watched the heterosexual video, the correlation was near zero.

Next, each man participated in a competitive task with a male opponent, which included opportunities for the winner of each round to administer minor electric shocks to the loser. Half were led to believe their opponent was gay. Dr. Parrott detected a strong relationship between the intensity of shocks administered and levels of sexual prejudice, but only among the men who both watched male-male erotica and then competed against a (presumably) gay male opponent. Similarly, the intensity of shocks was correlated with levels of anger only in that group.

Thus, among men who were exposed to male-male sexuality and placed in a situation where they could aggress against a gay man, levels of sexual prejudice and anger were strongly associated with levels of aggression. This association was absent among men who were exposed to heterosexual sexuality or who believed they were competing against a heterosexual opponent.

In a separate, complementary study, Dr. Parrott and his colleagues found that the link between sexual prejudice and anger derives from straight men’s experience of negative emotions in connection with exposure to male homosexuality. In that study, once again, feelings of anger were strongly associated with sexual prejudice among men who viewed a male-male erotic video, but not among those who saw a heterosexual video. Moreover, watching a male-male video caused highly prejudiced heterosexual men to feel high levels of anxiety which, in turn, triggered their feelings of anger. Thus, Dr. Parrott concluded that increases in anxiety and related negative emotions following exposure to male-male sexuality may be a catalyst for heightened anger among prejudiced heterosexual men. If such men subsequently encounter a gay man, that anger can lead to aggression.

Generalizing from Dr. Parrott’s findings, we can speculate about the psychological underpinnings of antigay violence outside the laboratory. In some cases, perhaps prejudiced heterosexual men experience extremely negative feelings (including anxiety) as a result of simply being around a man they believe is gay. Perhaps those feelings are even more intense if the situation makes the gay man’s sexuality salient (or maybe some heterosexuals always perceive gay men mainly in sexual terms). Those feelings might cause prejudiced straight men to interpret the situation in ways that foster an increase in anger — even to the point of feeling rage. Given the right circumstances (including, perhaps, the disinhibiting effects of drugs or alcohol), they might express that rage through extremely violent acts against the gay man — perhaps even overkill.

This account leaves several questions unanswered. For example, why do some heterosexual men experience such strongly negative feelings around gay men whereas others don’t? What about other types of violence, such as straight men’s attacks on lesbians? And what about violence that results from factors other than prejudice, such as peer pressure or the perpetrator’s need to assert his masculinity?

I’ll address some of these puzzles in a future posting.

A Footnote

The murders of Billy Jack Gaither and Scotty Joe Weaver weren’t included in FBI annual hate crime reports. Like a dozen other states, Alabama doesn’t count antigay murders or other crimes based on the victim’s sexual orientation under its hate crime statute.

# # # # #

Brian Miller & Laud Humphreys’ study, “Lifestyles and violence: Homosexual victims of assault and murder,” was published in 1980 in Qualitative Sociology (vol. 3, pp. 169-185).

Michael D. Bell & Raul I. Vila’s study, “Homicide in homosexual victims: A study of 67 cases from the Broward County, Florida, Medical Examiner’s office (1982-1992), with special emphasis on ‘overkill,’ ” was published in 1996 in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology (vol. 17, #1, pp. 65-69).

The studies by Dominic Parrott and his colleagues were published in 2006 in Aggressive Behavior (“Sexual prejudice and anger network activation: Mediating role of negative affect,” vol. 32, pp. 7-16) and in 2005 in Psychology of Men and Masculinity (“Effects of sexual prejudice and anger on physical aggression toward gay and heterosexual men,” vol. 6, pp. 3-17).

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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June 26, 2007

Hate Crimes Hit 1 in 5 Sexual Minorities

Posted at 12:05 am (Pacific Time)

What percentage of sexual minority adults in the United States have experienced hate crimes because of their sexual orientation?

Every year, the FBI reports the number of hate crimes tallied by local law enforcement agencies during the previous 12 months. Those statistics are useful but, as I explained in an earlier post, they only include crimes that victims reported to the police. Data from the National Crime Victim Survey (NCVS) indicate that about 58% of crimes based on sexual orientation went unreported between July 2000 and December 2003.

In addition, the FBI and NCVS data only tell us about the number of hate crimes committed during a particular period. They don’t yield information about the prevalence of such victimization among sexual minorities — that is, the proportion of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual population that has been targeted for criminal victimization because of their sexual orientation.

Until recently, hate crime prevalence had to be estimated from community-based samples. Those data were tremendously useful but, because of the study designs, none of the samples could be assumed to be representative of the national population of sexual minority adults.

Now, however, prevalence data are available from a survey conducted with a national probability sample. And they show that such victimization is alarmingly common: About 1 in 5 sexual minority adults report they have experienced a crime against their person or property based on their sexual orientation.

I conducted the survey in 2005 with a nationally representative sample of 662 lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. Participants reported their experiences with violence, property crimes, and harassment based on their sexual orientation since they turned 18. A paper reporting the survey results has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence in 2008.

Here are some key findings:

  • 13% of respondents said they had been hit, beaten, physically attacked, or sexually assaulted because of their sexual orientation.
  • 15% had been robbed or had their property stolen, vandalized, or purposely damaged.
  • Combining these two groups, 21% had experienced either violence or a property crime.
  • 14% said someone had tried to attack them, rob them, or damage their property, but didn’t succeed.
  • 23% had been threatened with violence.
  • 13% had an object thrown at them.
  • 49% had been verbally insulted or abused because of their sexual orientation.

The risks for victimization weren’t uniform throughout the sample. Gay men were significantly more likely than lesbians or bisexuals to be victimized.More than one third of the gay men had experienced one or both types of crimes, compared to between 11% and 13% of lesbians, bisexual men, and bisexual women. Gay men also reported higher levels of harassment and verbal abuse than the other sexual orientation groups.

These patterns are consistent with previous research. Data from the FBI and NCVS indicate that men are generally more likely than women to be the targets of most kinds of violent crime, especially crimes perpetrated by strangers. This pattern seems to hold in antigay hate crimes as well. Among the men in the sample, those who were gay were more open about their sexual orientation than those who were bisexual, and this greater visibility probably further increased the gay men’s relative likelihood of victimization.

Despite variations within the sample, the survey findings show that hate crime victimization is an all too common experience among all sexual minorities.

Other research has shown that gay and lesbian survivors of hate crimes show higher levels of psychological distress for a longer time period, compared to sexual minority victims of other kinds of violent crime. The data from the new survey indicate that a substantial number of Americans are at risk for this kind of victimization and its often debilitating consequences.

More information about the study is available on my website.

Data collection was made possible by a grant from the Gill Foundation.

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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October 17, 2006

Antigay Hate Crimes: The Numbers Game

Posted at 1:53 pm (Pacific Time)

Are hate crimes against sexual minorities still a problem?

Throughout the 1990s, each annual release of the FBI’s hate crime statistics was accompanied by news stories about that year’s disturbing increase in antigay violence and victimization. The rising tide of crimes based on the victim’s sexual orientation was repeatedly cited as proof that more funds were needed for victim services, and that law enforcement agencies should devote more resources to preventing and prosecuting antigay attacks.

Sure enough, the number of officially documented antigay crimes increased each year: from 425 incidents in 1991, to 767 in 1992, to 860 in 1993. With few exceptions, the count continued to climb annually until 2001, when it peaked at 1,393 incidents.

Then it began to decline: to 1,244 (in 2002), to 1,239 (in 2003), to 1,197 (in 2004).

Yesterday, the FBI released the latest data, which show another decrease. In 2005, 1,017 antigay crime incidents were reported by local law enforcement authorities.

So are antigay hate crimes still a problem?

The answer is yes, for several reasons.

First, the FBI statistics understate the true extent of hate crime. As I explained in a previous post, at least half of antigay crimes aren’t reported to the police. Victims don’t report for a variety of reasons: They anticipate further harassment by the police, they fear discrimination if their sexual orientation is publicly revealed, or they simply don’t expect the police to catch the perpetrators.

Second, in addition to the physical trauma that hate crimes inflict, they have a more negative impact on victims than do “routine” crimes. As shown in a 1999 study, gay and lesbian victims of violent hate crimes suffer more serious and longer-lasting psychological effects than gay men and lesbians who are victims of violence that isn’t based on their sexual orientation.

Third, antigay hate crimes are attacks against an entire community and, as such, are a kind of terrorism. They convey the message that anyone can be targeted for violence if they’re perceived to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Thus, the impact of a hate crime extends far beyond the victim and her or his immediate circle of family and friends. Such crimes increase the feelings of vulnerability and danger experienced by the whole sexual minority community.

Let’s hope the hate crime count continues to fall in the coming years. But let’s not trap ourselves in a numbers game. Even if they decline in frequency, hate crimes against sexual minority victims are still a serious problem.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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