‘Gay Bashing’--AIDS Fear Cited as Attacks on Male Homosexuals Grow
A group of teen-agers, shouting “diseased faggot” and “you’re killing us all,” dragged David Johnson from his car in a supermarket parking lot last December, beat him with their skateboards, kicked him and clawed his face.
Johnson’s jaw and three ribs were broken, his head was gashed, his kidneys bruised, and his face and neck cut with deep fingernail scratches.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. April 12, 1986 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 12, 1986 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 3 No Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
An article in April 10 editions of The Times describing attacks on homosexuals incorrectly attributed a statement that increased harassment of gays might represent a backlash against the gay rights movement. Because of an editing error, it was attributed to Kevin Berrill, manager of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force project on violence. The statement actually was made by Randy Schell, a counselor at Community United Against Violence in San Francisco.
“I just keep thinking . . . why did this happen? What did we do?” said Matthew Holloway, Johnson’s lover who was with him when he was attacked.
“It shattered our lives,” Johnson said.
Johnson was an apparent victim of “gay bashing”--attacked solely because he is a homosexual. His assailants have not been found.
Gay activists say that physical attacks against homosexuals are increasing at an alarming pace here and elsewhere.
They attribute at least part of the increase to a fear of AIDS, the deadly disease that has most commonly stricken gay men in this country. They also charge that the belief of conservative religious groups that the AIDS epidemic is God’s way of punishing the gay community has spurred anti-gay sentiment.
“It’s like giving them a carte blanche, saying it’s OK to beat up gays,” said Dr. Ian Barlow, a San Francisco psychologist who counsels victims of anti-gay violence.
Community United Against Violence, a San Francisco agency serving victims of anti-gay violence, reported the number of clients it served in 1985 increased 61%, from 185 to 298, over the previous year. The New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project reported a 41% increase in the same period.
A poll conducted last year by the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Task Force concluded that homosexuals are four times more likely to be victims of violence than the general urban population.
“Anti-gay violence has reached epidemic proportions,” said Kevin Berrill, manager of the Washington, D.C.-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s project on violence.
Law enforcement officers, though, are divided on whether gay bashing is increasing. For instance, Lt. Paul Seidler, the San Francisco Police Department’s liaison to the gay community, said he personally believes it is on the rise. But Ray Benson, deputy chief of the Mission District Police Station, which covers the Castro District, the largest gay neighborhood in San Francisco, says he has no reason to believe that is true.
Law enforcement officers in the Los Angeles area also say they have seen no increase. “We don’t have any systematic attacks on gays,” said Capt. James Cooke of the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station.
Some gay activists disagree. Eric Rofes, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Service Center in Hollywood, asserts that “Los Angeles is seeing an increase in anti-gay violence.” However, neither he nor other gay activists in the Los Angeles area can document any increase. The only California organization to keep statistics on the issue is Community United Against Violence, which records attacks only in San Francisco.
Similarly, police keep no statistics on attacks against gays.
“There’s no box to check off on the police report form. They can mention it in the body of the report but no one is really tracking it,” Seidler said.
Still, a number of cases have received public attention in the last two years:
- In Stockton in February, the body of Virgil Scott, a minister of the Metropolitan Community Church, which has a predominantly homosexual congregation, was discovered in the trunk of his car. Scott, who was also gay, had been badly beaten and suffered multiple stab wounds.
At least 20 Metropolitan Community Churches nationwide have been burned in the last 13 years and several dozen ministers and staff members have either been assaulted or received death threats, according to church officials in Los Angeles. The church has formally requested an FBI investigation into the “concentrated effort to murder, terrorize and otherwise deprive ministers and others of their civil rights.” An aide for Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) said the senator will also ask for an FBI investigation.
- Last month a New Jersey gay man was assaulted by three men, who extinguished cigarettes on his face, tied him to the back of their truck and drove along a road dragging him in tow. Local gay activists say he was attacked because he was gay.
- A man arrested for the 1985 shooting and killing of a gay man in Vermont explained why he shot the victim he had never met: “I killed him because he looked like a fag.”
- In January, three youths who were among a group in 1984 who attacked John O’Connell, a San Francisco gay man, were convicted of second-degree murder. Witnesses said O’Connell was walking down the street with a friend, when the youths--shouting “faggot”--jumped them. O’Connell fell and struck his head on the curb. He died two days later.
In some cases homosexual men and women say they are being victimized, not by violence, but by the threat of violence.
Jim Langham, who works as a health care products distributor in San Francisco, says he has been repeatedly chased and shouted at by a group of teen-agers who live in his neighborhood.
Stalked Like an Animal
“I have to live with this every day,” said Langham. “They scream ‘AIDS, AIDS, you’ve got AIDS.’ They just stalk me like an animal--like a wolf pack. Sometimes I feel angry, like going and beating up the little punks.”
The New York project reported that 28% of the incidents it documented in 1985 involved violence against people with AIDS or explicit use of AIDS-related epithets by the assailants.
“One of the reasons I see it increasing is because AIDS has been used as a way of legitimizing anti-gay attitudes,” said Randy Schell, a counselor at Community United Against Violence in San Francisco.
“People are getting the message that gay equals AIDS, that it’s OK to hate these people and it’s OK to do something about it.”
Another reason for the increase, Berrill said, may be a backlash against the gay rights movement.
“We are more visible now and that makes us more vulnerable to people who hate us and would hurt us,” Berrill said.
Groups like Community United Against Violence are urging victims of gay bashing to fight back. The first step, says Schell, is to persuade victims to report attacks to police.
According to a report last year by Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s Criminal Justice Council, “community outreach data suggests that 82% of anti-gay attacks were not reported to the police.”
Gay advocacy groups in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York also estimate that more than 75% of the victims never report gay-bashing attacks to authorities.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force says in a recent report that the reasons victims keep silent are clear: “Those who work with such victims cite fear of exposure and discrimination, fear of reprisals and fear that the police will be indifferent or even hostile.”
Distrust of Police
“There is a real material basis for that kind of fear,” said Carmen Vasquez, community outreach coordinator for the San Francisco project. “It wasn’t very long ago that police were raiding bars and arresting people for sodomy. There is little basis for trusting the police, but we’re starting to take steps in that direction.”
“The most important thing is not to suffer in silence,” said Schell, who learned first-hand about homosexual attacks six years ago when assailants repeatedly slammed his head against a lamp post.
Advocacy groups like Schell’s and the New York project are helping victims fight back with a variety of services. They are providing hot lines staffed by trained peer counselors, escort services for those who feel they may be in danger, volunteers to go with victims to the police, and court monitoring.
The San Francisco group is also reaching out to potential gay bashers. More than half of the assailants, according to the project’s 1985 report, were white males under the age of 18.
Visits to Schools
Because of that, two volunteers--one gay man and one lesbian--visit family life classes at Bay Area high schools to talk about themselves and to answer questions.
“Our main purpose is to provide them with an opportunity, often their first, to meet an openly gay person and have a dialogue,” Vasquez said.
At a recent high school presentation, students sat forward in their chairs and the air was full of waving hands. They asked questions like “When did you become gay?” or “Aren’t you afraid of getting AIDS?”
“To unlearn stereotypes you need to be able to talk to real life human beings who can answer questions. We try to reduce the tensions brought on by ignorance and fear that can lead to hostility and violence,” Vasquez said.
Johnson, who was beaten up last December, said that at first he withdrew and then he became angry. He has now directed part of his anger at the supermarket that owned the parking lot where he said he was attacked. A lawsuit filed by Johnson alleges that the store security guard remained inside during the 30-minute attack, despite pleas for help from Holloway.
Both Johnson and Holloway say they will never forget the attack.
“No one can know what it was like to turn around and see them ripping off the car door and dragging David out,” Holloway said. “I thought, ‘My God--what if it was a straight man’s wife or child?’ ”
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