The New York City Anti-Violence project reports that 40% of lesbians and gay men in the U.S. have been victimized by hate violence in their adult lifetimes, and that hate violence is a near-universal experience of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. In other words, violence against LGBT people is rampant.
So it was ironic when Charles J. Cooper, a lawyer representing opponents of same-sex marriage in the California Supreme Court case challenging Proposition 8, argued for a media black-out of the court proceedings in order to protect witnesses testifying against equal marriage rights from, "harassment, economic reprisal, threats and even physical violence." It's a topsy-turvey argument akin to claims of reverse racism; one that repositions proponents of the status quo as victims, despite the total absence of a violent movement targeting Prop 8 supporters and the extensive history of violence against same-sex couples. The court agreed with Cooper, insuring that the public would never have access to footage of the anti-gay movement leaders called to justify, under-oath, the claim that same-sex marriage threatens families and heterosexual marriage. More importantly, the decision reinforced a fundamental tenet of institutionalized inequality: some people are protected, while others are not.
According to Sharon Stapel, Executive Director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, LGBT people are particularly vulnerable to violence, in part, because of their historic exclusion from legal protections. With President Obama's signing of the Mathew Shepherd Hate Crimes Act, LGBT people gained federal protection from hate crimes for the first time in our history. It was an important accomplishment for the LGBT movement. But Stapel warns that legislation is not enough:
There is legitimacy to what hate crimes legislation can do for our communities, but that is not the sum total of what we're trying to do in moving policy. It's actually not even the most important part of what we're trying to do in moving policy. What we want to see is a shift in attitude. A shift in culture.
Hate speech against gay people is embedded in our culture. The most radical voices claim that gay and lesbian people are a threat to children, our country, even our way of life. What many don't realize is that these messages are crafted by a well-resourced media machine, one that not only inspires bias, but intense hate against LGBT people. Each day, a cacophony of voices spreads misinformation and half-truths about the LGBT community on air, in print and online.
Social scientists know that hate speech does not exist in a vacuum. According to forensic pychologist Karen Franklin, perpetrators of violence against gay and lesbian people often feel entitled to control social deviance by keeping people who violate gender norms in their place. In a study of approximately 500 young adults in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, Franklin found that a startling, "18 percent of young males admit to having physically assaulted an LGBT person." To put that alarming number in perspective, when John Amaechi became the first NBA basketball player to come out publicly, he could have reasonably assumed that one of his five teammates on the court would respond by beating him up.
This month, the public television show In The Life, looks at hate speech and whether it incites violence against the LGBT community. The segment features interviews with both victims and perpetrators of hate crimes. It also includes a profile of photographer Alix Smith, whose portraits attempt to expand public perception of what a family looks like by framing LGBT families in domestic settings. To watch it online, or find out when it will air on your local PBS station, go to: http://www.inthelifetv.org.