I follow the Gay Voices section pretty closely. I like to know what other op-ed contributors are writing, and the vertical does a good job of keeping me up-to-date on LGBTQ(etc.) news. Over the past few weeks, I've noticed a trend in the hate-crime-related stories. Two weeks ago, a man in Pennsylvania, Steven Iorio, was set on fire by two friends after coming out to them -- they broke into his house, poured rum on his legs, and set him on fire. Last week, in Scotland, Stuart Walker was beaten to death, then set aflame. Shortly after, a man in Dallas, Burke Burnett, survived a brutal, hate-fueled attack in which he was beaten, stabbed, and thrown into a lit, burning barrel.
That, my readers, is a lot of arson in a couple of weeks.
These incidents rekindled my forgotten obsession with violent, anti-LGBT crimes that involve arson. My work for the Center for Homicide Research exposed me to cases filled with the grisly details of homicides, but the attacks involving fire fascinated me. Every time I saw arson used in a homicide, my brain snagged on the seemingly simple question, "Why fire?" Its use seemed notably cruel, dramatic, and unnecessary.
In attempting to answer this question, I learned that arson in violent crime is common. It kills 600 to 700 people in the U.S. annually. (That's just the deaths. I couldn't find the statistic for how many assaults involve arson.) Interestingly, studies demonstrate that gay men are the victims of homicide involving fire more frequently than other groups. In 1994, Sapp and Huff showed that 26 percent of arson victims are gay. That means a quarter of arson homicide victims comprise less than 10 percent of the total population.
Establishing prevalence was helpful but didn't help to answer why. Why burn men who have sex with men?
My liberal-arts-educated brain darted all over the place groping for meaning. The derogatory language used against gay men is steeped in flames: flamboyant, flaming, flamer, fag, faggot. All common. All involve combustion. An interesting thought, but certainly it would never be described as indisputably causal. My brain jumped to literature. The Bible tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where fire and brimstone ravish a city as punishment for wicked acts of homosexuality. Again, interesting, but it didn't help answer my question.
It was time to check with the experts. Many criminologists believe that hatred is the most common motive for arson. Hate makes sense. It fits with another common characteristic of LGBT homicide: overkill. Overkill is used to describe excessive actions, which result from intense motivational feelings. When dealing with violent crime, "excessive actions" means thorough, gruesome attacks. The crime continues after the victim has died. In most cases, some combination of assault, stabbing, dismemberment, and arson are used.
Attacks involving arson are especially brutal. Meticulous care is taken in carrying them out. The violence is heaped on. One mortal wound isn't enough. Flesh must be pierced, ripped, and penetrated over and over. The bodies razed. These attacks are vicious. I've typed and deleted the word "inhuman" several times. "Inhuman" is inaccurate. I mean the exact opposite. These attacks are characteristically human. They are wrought with meaning -- the offender wants there to be no doubt that this violence was intentional. In the case of hate crimes, it's a warning. This is what happens when you are gay. This is what these people get -- what they deserve.
The hatred fueling this brutality is probably what always drew me to the use of arson in violent crime. I don't think I was ever really asking why people set other people on fire. I think I always knew the answer was hate. Instead, I think I was searching for the source of that hate.
How could anyone abhor the LGBTQ community enough to commit that level of violence? As a gay man, I couldn't separate myself from my research. I was constantly asking myself, "How could a stranger hate me enough to do this to me?"
I'm not sure I'll ever get an answer to that question.