July 23, 2008

From 1993 to 2008: DADT and the House Armed Services Committee

Posted at 11:02 am (Pacific Time)

Today the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee holds hearings on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The congressional hearings come as Democrats increasingly discuss repealing the policy under a new Administration, and in the wake of a July ABC News/Washington Post Poll in which 75% of respondents said  that “homosexuals who DO publicly disclose their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the military.” (78% said those who DON’T disclose their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve.)

The hearings also follow the recent release of a report by a team of retired senior military officers that concluded the ban on openly gay service members is counterproductive and should end, as well as a public statement signed by more than 50 retired generals and admirals that calls on Congress to repeal DADT.

With these signs of quickening movement toward eliminating the military’s discriminatory personnel policy, I’d like to be able to discuss the social science research relevant to the policy.

However, there isn’t much to say that is new.

Revisiting the Social Science Data

To be sure, new studies have been released that consider issues related to privacy, unit cohesion, and the experiences of other countries that have integrated sexual minorities into their militaries. I’ve discussed some of this work in previous posts. The Michael D. Palm Center website at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is also an excellent resource for such research.

But the conclusions of the newer research don’t differ much from those of past studies.

Thus, it seems appropriate to revisit a previous set of hearings in which the House Armed Services Committee heard about social science research relevant to military personnel policy. They were held in May of 1993 and were chaired by Rep. Ron Dellums (D-CA).

I was invited to testify before the Committee on behalf of the American Psychological Association and five other professional organizations (the American Psychiatric Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Counseling Association, the American Nursing Association, and the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States).

What follows is the bulk of my oral statement (with some introductory and background material omitted):

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I am pleased to have the opportunity to appear before you today to provide testimony on the policy implications of lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military….

My written testimony to the Committee summarizes the results of an extensive review of the relevant published research from the social and behavioral sciences. That review is lengthy. However, I can summarize its conclusions in a few words: The research data show that there is nothing about lesbians and gay men that makes them inherently unfit for military service, and there is nothing about heterosexuals that makes them inherently unable to work and live with gay people in close quarters.

….I would like to address two questions that have been raised repeatedly in the current discussion surrounding the military ban on service by gay men and lesbians. The first question is whether lesbians and gay men are inherently unfit for service. In the current debate, some consensus seems to have been reached that gay people are just as competent, just as dedicated, and just as patriotic as their heterosexual counterparts. However, questions still are raised concerning whether the presence of openly gay military personnel would create a heightened risk for sexual harassment, favoritism, or fraternization.

Obviously, data are not available to address these questions directly because the current policy has made collection of such data impossible in the military. However, based on research conducted with civilians, as well as reports from quasi-military organizations in the United States (such as police and fire departments) and the armed forces of other countries, there is no reason to expect that gay men and lesbians would be any more likely than heterosexuals to engage in sexual harassment or other prohibited conduct. We know that a homosexual orientation is not associated with impaired psychological functioning; it is not in any way a mental illness. In addition, there is no valid scientific evidence to indicate that gay men and lesbians are less able than heterosexuals to control their sexual or romantic urges, to refrain from the abuse of power, to obey rules and laws, to interact effectively with others, or to exercise good judgment in handling authority….

The second question I would like to address is whether unit cohesion and morale would be harmed if personnel known to be gay were allowed to serve. Would heterosexual personnel refuse to work and live in close quarters with lesbian or gay male service members? This question reflects a recognition that stigma leads many heterosexuals to hold false stereotypes about lesbians and gay men and unwarranted prejudices against them.

As with the first question, we do not currently have data that directly answer questions about morale and cohesion. We do know, however, that heterosexuals are fully capable of establishing close interpersonal relationships with gay people and that as many as one-third of the adult heterosexual population in the U.S. has already done so. We also know that heterosexuals who have a close ongoing relationship with a gay man or a lesbian tend to express favorable and accepting attitudes toward gay people as a group. And it appears that ongoing interpersonal contact in a supportive environment where common goals are emphasized, and prejudice is clearly unacceptable, is likely to foster positive feelings toward gay men and lesbians. Thus, the assumption that heterosexuals cannot overcome their prejudices toward gay people is a mistaken one.

In summary, neither heterosexuals nor homosexuals appear to possess any characteristics that would make them inherently incapable of functioning under a nondiscriminatory military policy. In my written testimony, I have offered a number of recommendations for implementing such a policy. I would like to mention five of the principal recommendations here.

The military should:

  • establish clear norms that sexual orientation is irrelevant to performing one’s duty and that everyone should be judged on her or his own merits;
  • eliminate false stereotypes about gay men and lesbians through education and sensitivity training for all personnel;
  • set uniform standards for public conduct that apply equally to heterosexual and homosexual personnel;
  • deal with sexual harassment as a form of conduct rather than as a characteristic of a class of people, and establish that all sexual harassment is unacceptable regardless of the genders or sexual orientations involved;
  • take a firm and highly publicized stand that violence against gay personnel is unacceptable and will be punished quickly and severely; attach stiff penalties to antigay violence perpetrated by military personnel.

Undoubtedly, implementing a new policy will involve challenges that will require careful and planned responses from the military leadership. This has been true for racial and gender integration, and it will be true for integration of open lesbians and gay men. The important point is that such challenges can be successfully met. The real question for debate is whether the military, the government, and the country as a whole are willing to meet them.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I will be happy to answer any questions that members of the Committee might have.

From 1993 to 2008

That was in 1993. Today, as then, the real question is not whether sexual minorities can be successfully integrated into the military. The social science data answered this question in the affirmative then, and do so even more clearly now.

Rather, the issue is whether the United States is willing to repudiate its current practice of antigay discrimination and address the challenges associated with a new policy.

The growing opposition to DADT among military veterans and the public indicate that we finally may be ready to take up this challenge.

*          *          *          *          *

The full text of my 1993 oral statement before the House Armed Services Committee can be read on my website.

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

·

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.

·

June 21, 2008

President Honors General Who Exposed DADT’s Real Roots

Posted at 12:53 pm (Pacific Time)

Bush congratulates PaceOn Thursday, President Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to General Peter Pace, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “for his steadfast leadership, his selfless devotion to keeping Americans safe, and his great courage.”

The award was greeted with widespread criticism because of remarks made by Gen. Pace last year about homosexuality and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy.

In a March 12, 2007, interview with the Chicago Tribune, he likened homosexuality to adultery and asserted, “I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts…. I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is okay to be immoral in any way.”

His remarks sparked outrage among congressional Democrats and gay advocacy groups. According to a National Public Radio report, senior Pentagon officials privately disclosed that the Secretary of Defense summoned Pace to his office after the comments were made public and demanded that he issue a statement. The following day, the Pentagon released the General’s statement, in which he downplayed the importance of his own moral views, but did not apologize for his remarks:

I made two points in support of the policy during the interview. One, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” allows individuals to serve this nation; and two, it does not make a judgment about the morality of individual acts. In expressing my support for the current policy, I also offered some personal opinions about moral conduct. I should have focused more on my support of the policy and less on my personal moral views.

Six months later, shortly before retiring, Gen. Pace reiterated his sentiments at a September Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. Saying he sought to clarify his earlier remarks, Pace noted that there are “wonderful Americans who happen to be homosexual serving in the military.” He continued:

We need to be very precise then, about what I said wearing my stars and being very conscious of it…. And that is, very simply, that we should respect those who want to serve the nation but not through the law of the land, condone activity that, in my upbringing, is counter to God’s law.

*          *          *          *          *

In response to Pres. Bush’s decision to award Gen. Pace with Presidential Medal of Freedom this week, Aubrey Sarvis, Executive Director of the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network (SLDN) said:

Honoring General Pace with the country’s highest civilian award is outrageous, insensitive and disrespectful to the 65,000 lesbian and gay troops currently serving on active duty in the armed forces. Our men and women in uniform are making tremendous sacrifices for our country and are looking for the President to recognize leaders who offer them praise and vision, not condemnation and scorn.

Mr. Sarvis makes a valid point, but perhaps we should actually be grateful to Gen. Pace. After all, most previous attempts to defend DADT have tried to justify the policy with spurious claims — for example:

  • that the presence of openly gay and lesbian military personnel would damage unit cohesion and impair the military’s ability to complete its mission
  • that sharing living quarters with gay and lesbian personnel would intrude unacceptably on the privacy of heterosexual personnel
  • that allowing sexual minority personnel to serve openly would damage the military’s reputation and reduce reenlistment rates.

However, empirical research has consistently failed to support these assertions. A few examples:

  • A 2006 Zogby poll conducted with active-duty personnel and veterans indicated that DADT isn’t strongly supported by combat personnel and veterans, and that allowing openly gay and lesbian personnel to serve is unlikely to reduce reenlistment or impair future recruitment. In addition, the poll showed that many military personnel know or suspect that their unit includes gay or lesbian members, and that most of those who knew for certain that their unit included one or more gay members did not believe that the latter’s presence affected either the respondent’s personal morale or the morale of the unit. Based on these and other data, Prof. Belkin argues in a paper recently published in Armed Forces & Society that the policy actually harms the military’s reputation.

*          *          *          *          *

Rather than trying to justify DADT on bogus factual grounds, Gen. Pace gave the world a refreshingly honest account of the real reasons why the US government still clings to the policy. By highlighting the moral worldview on which it is based, he showed that the policy is mainly about religious beliefs and longstanding prejudices, not the laundry list of concerns about the practical impact of a policy change that are routinely cited by DADT defenders.

Of course, it may not have been Gen. Pace’s intention to provide such clarity about the real roots of DADT. But perhaps he nevertheless deserves recognition for it.

And, since past Medal of Freedom awardees from within the Bush administration have included former CIA Director George Tenet, former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer, and Gen. Tommy Franks — all of whom have been strongly criticized for their roles in the current Administration’s early Iraq decisionmaking and policies — perhaps Gen. Pace is in the right company.

*          *          *          *          *

For further discussions of social science research relevant to DADT, consult the “Publications” page on the Michael D. Palm Center website at the University of California, Santa Barbara

For more information about DADT, consult the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network website.

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

·

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.

·

June 4, 2008

California Court: Weddings Can Begin on June 17

Posted at 1:57 pm (Pacific Time)

According to a news article this morning by Howard Mintz of the San Jose Mercury News:

The California Supreme Court today rejected a bid to freeze last month’s ruling legalizing gay marriage, paving the way for same-sex couples to begin walking down the aisle as soon as June 17.

Moving swiftly to remove legal uncertainty, the court turned away a request from gay marriage foes to stay the ruling until after the November election, when voters will consider a ballot measure that would change the state Constitution to again outlaw same-sex weddings. The secretary of state earlier this week qualified the initiative for the November ballot.

The justices were divided 4-3 on whether to rehear their earlier decision, the same split that unfolded when the gay marriage case was decided in May. Conservative organizations, joined by 11 other states, asked the court to reopen the case, a move opposed by civil rights groups, San Francisco city officials and Attorney General Jerry Brown.

The Court’s action may have important consequences for public opinion in California which, according to a recent Field Poll, already supports marriage equality.

A considerable body of research shows that heterosexuals are more likely to have positive feelings toward lesbians and gay men when they have close personal relationships with sexual minorities. It is also likely that knowing a friend or family member’s same-sex partner further enhances positive attitudes. And those favorable attitudes may well translate into a commitment to support policies that favor equality.

Thus, attending a friend or relative’s wedding to a same-sex partner this summer may lead many heterosexual Californians to decide to vote against the constitutional amendment in November.

I’ll discuss this idea at greater length in a future post.

UPDATE (June 6): In response to a request from the City of San Francisco, the California Office of Vital Records today announced that all California counties may begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples at 5 pm on Monday, June 16.

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

·

December 13, 2007

AIDS and Quarantine: Looking Backward

Posted at 4:08 am (Pacific Time)

Quarantine: Enforced isolation or restriction of free movement imposed to prevent the spread of contagious disease. (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition).

Last Saturday, the Associated Press revealed Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s responses to questions about AIDS and homosexuality during his 1992 campaign for the US Senate. On the topic of AIDS, Mr. Huckabee stated:

If the federal government is truly serious about doing something with the AIDS virus, we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague…. It is difficult to understand the public policy towards AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population, and in which this deadly disease for which there is no cure is being treated as a civil rights issue instead of the true health crisis it represents.

According to a Sunday AP story, Huckabee stands by his 1992 statement.

“I still believe this today,” he said in a broadcast interview, that “we were acting more out of political correctness” in responding to the AIDS crisis. “I don’t run from it, I don’t recant it,” he said of his position in 1992. Yet he said he would state his view differently in retrospect.

When Huckabee expressed his opinion in 1992, scientific research had identified the human immunodeficiency virus as the cause of AIDS and it was well understood that, unlike many other communicable diseases, HIV could not be transmitted through casual social contact.

That message had been strongly reinforced the previous year when Los Angeles Lakers superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson publicly disclosed his HIV infection. Indeed, in its November 18, 1991 issue that featured Johnson on the cover, Sports Illustrated included a special “For Kids Only” page that tried to explain the news to readers 12 and younger. Roughly half of that article stressed that HIV isn’t spread through casual social contact. After listing the many ways in which AIDS isn’t contracted, it summarized the message:

The truth is, AIDS is a disease that’s hard for young kids to get. It’s almost impossible for any kid to get AIDS from doing everyday things such as going to school. (p. 46)

There was no credible medical or public health argument in support of quarantining people with AIDS in 1992. Rejecting calls for quarantine and similar punitive measures wasn’t a matter of being “politically correct.” Rather, it was based on sound evidence about the nature of HIV.

Nevertheless, a substantial minority of the US public shared Huckabee’s view. In a 1991 national telephone survey that I conducted with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, 34% of US adults agreed with the statement, “People with AIDS should be legally separated from others to protect the public health.” (By 1999, only 12% of survey respondents expressed such sentiments.)

What was behind this support for quarantine? For some people, it reflected an unfounded belief that AIDS could be easily transmitted. Their support for quarantine was part of a general fear of contact with HIV-positive individuals.

Such misapprehensions and fears are still around. A 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation national survey found that more than one third of Americans still didn’t know that HIV isn’t spread through kissing, and nearly one fourth didn’t know it can’t be spread by sharing a drinking glass. More than one fifth of the Kaiser survey respondents said they would be uncomfortable about having a coworker who is HIV-infected, and 30% of parents in the sample expressed discomfort at the prospect of their child having a teacher who is HIV-positive.

For others, however, support for quarantine was less about fear of HIV infection than it was about using the AIDS epidemic as an opportunity to express their preexisting prejudices against lesbians and gay men. In analyses of survey data from the latter half of the 1990s with my UCD colleague, Professor John Capitanio, I found that most heterosexuals continued to associate AIDS primarily with homosexuality or bisexuality, and this association was correlated with higher levels of sexual prejudice. In addition, although everyone who contracted AIDS sexually was blamed to some extent for becoming infected, gay and bisexual men were blamed more than heterosexual men and women. Moreover, sexual prejudice was correlated with both misconceptions about HIV transmission and discomfort with HIV-infected people.

This linkage of AIDS-related stigma and sexual prejudice highlights the relevance of Mr. Huckabee’s 1992 survey response on the topic of homosexuality:

I feel homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk.

I can’t say whether Mr. Huckabee’s support for taking unnecessary punitive measures against people with AIDS was fueled by his negative attitudes toward homosexuality. However, sexual prejudice apparently has led many Americans to respond in a similar manner.

The fact that Mr. Huckabee is standing by his 1992 comments is disturbing in light of the continuing danger that HIV poses to gay and bisexual men in the United States. HIV infections appear to be increasing among young sexual minority men, the generation too young to have experienced the ravages of the epidemic during the 1980s and 1990s. Those men have reached sexual maturity during an era when homosexuality remains stigmatized, federal law explicitly delegitimizes same-sex relationships, and HIV researchers are advised to delete words pertaining to gay men and homosexuality from the abstracts and titles of their federal grant applications if they hope to be funded.

This situation recently led to a call for a new commitment to combating the spread of HIV among men who are gay, bisexual, or involved in sexual contact with other men (MSM). Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, three prominent AIDS researchers stressed the urgent need for leadership from public health officials and within the sexual minority community. Among other actions, they stressed the need to:

… call for the end of stigma toward MSM, which may mitigate the internalization of homophobia leading to sexual risk behavior. This need is particularly critical within racial and ethnic minority MSM communities that bear the stigma of homosexuality along with the discrimination faced by these minorities. Political leadership is also needed to advocate for legal domestic partnerships as a way to promote stable, longer-term MSM relationships. (Jaffe et al., 2007, p. 2413)

Unfortunately, even with such leadership, the prospects for a renewed commitment to implementing effective programs to stop the spread of HIV are bleak as long as serious contenders for national office still believe that quarantining people with HIV was a reasonable idea in 1992.

# # # # #

For the Associated Press article about Mr. Huckabee’s 1992 questionnaire responses, see A. DeMillo. (2007, December 8). Huckabee wanted to isolate AIDS patients. San Francisco Chronicle.

For the JAMA editorial, see H. W. Jaffe, R.O. Valdiserri, & K.M. De Cock. (2007). The reemerging HIV/AIDS epidemic in men who have sex with men. Journal of the American Medical Association, 298, 2412-2414.

For more discussion of research on the link between sexual prejudice and HIV-related stigma, see G. M. Herek & J. P. Capitanio. (1999). AIDS stigma and sexual prejudice. American Behavioral Scientist, 42, 1130-1147.

Copyright © 2007 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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