Pablo Alvarez sat on a worn couch in the lesbian and gay center at Cal State Long Beach. Next to him was a table covered with flowers and candles, what was left of a campus memorial for Matthew Shepard, the gay college student beaten to death in Wyoming last month.
Alvarez had dismantled the memorial a few days earlier. It was dark when he began his task and he was alone. He remembers suddenly feeling frightened, frightened enough to get a friend to help him.
“There I was, taking down the rainbow flag, a perfect target,” he recalled, his shoulders wrapped with the same gay pride flag to ward off the chill of an overzealous air conditioner.
For gay men and women, especially young ones like 21-year-old Alvarez, Shepard’s much publicized death was a brutal reminder of their vulnerability. Gays may be more assimilated and accepted than they’ve ever been in American society, but they remain leading targets of hate crimes.
In Los Angeles County, anti-gay incidents have consistently ranked as the second most common type of bias crime reported, after racially motivated incidents.
Some of the attacks have been just as vicious as the one on Shepard, who was pistol-whipped and tied to a fence post, allegedly by two young men he had met in a bar.
There was Dennis Phung, beaten to death in 1996 in his Hollywood apartment by two transient teenagers he had hired as photo models. They used a claw hammer and--to make sure there was no doubt about their motive--left a mask on his head with the words “gay bash” scrawled across it.
There was Lawrence Ford, bludgeoned and slashed ear to ear in 1996 in his Marina del Rey home by a man he had met through a personal ad in the Los Angeles Times.
There was Leeanne Keith of Downey, shot in the back and paralyzed by her father-in-law two years ago because she was thinking of leaving her marriage to embark on a lesbian relationship.
“It’s out there. You don’t have to go to Laramie,” said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Carla Arranaga. She heads the hate crime suppression unit that obtained convictions in all three cases, which drew barely a mention in the mainstream press. “The same type of atrocity occurs here.”
The county Human Relations Commission, which tracks hate crimes reported by law enforcement and community agencies, recorded 220 anti-gay incidents in 1997.
The Threat of Violence
Those familiar with hate crimes say gay-bashings are frequently more violent than other bias-motivated offenses. “The most violent type I see [involves] gay and lesbian victims, and African American victims” targeted by white supremacists, Arranaga said.
As members of the campus gay and lesbian group, Alvarez and his friends are certainly no strangers to anti-gay attitudes.
The group has gotten hate mail and harassing phone calls. Its fliers have been torn down. A women’s athletic team yelled slurs at some lesbians leaving the center office one night. Graffiti in one campus men’s room was signed by a “famous and proud gay basher.”
Still, the threat of violence was more abstract than real until the graphic details of the Shepard attack were splashed across the national media.
“He’s my age,” Karla Saldana, a 20-year-old junior, said of Shepard, who belonged to the gay student association at the University of Wyoming. “It never hit home before.”
The day Shepard died--several days after he was found slumped unconscious on a split rail fence--Samantha Clemens was taking part in a campus panel on gay issues. As in Alvarez’s case, it dawned on her that she too could be a target.
“For the first time, I thought, oh my God, someone in this class could follow me,” Clemens, 22, said.
Juliet Henderson, a 26-year-old UCLA graduate student, has felt relatively safe in Los Angeles. She has walked around the Westside holding hands with her girlfriend and drawn no more than a few stares.
“West Hollywood is a little bubble--that’s where I live,” Henderson said. “It’s really easy to live in a little gay world and forget people have other experiences.”
Yet even before the Shepard attack, she had a sense of risk. “You never know who is going to be a wacko who could just break out a knife or a gun,” she said.
When Mark Masterson, 39, lived in North Carolina in his early 20s, he was beaten by a friend’s neighbors. They slashed the tires on his car and then five men jumped him, forcing him down on the pavement.
Masterson escaped with a pulled shoulder and cuts. “It echoes still,” said the USC graduate student. “It left me very frightened and very cold. You get very scared.”
To this day, he tries to avoid neighborhood situations that could escalate. “I want to be out,” Masterson said. “But at the same time what I don’t want to do is start something with someone who is homophobic near where I live. Because then things get unpredictable and life isn’t worth living.”
He was not surprised by the Shepard attack. But he was upset: “I guess I was putting myself in his place.”
Hate crime statistics consistently indicate that gay men are victims more often than lesbians.
That is partly because men are more apt than women to congregate in public, gay-identified areas--where they can be easily targeted. And it is partly because gay men are more willing to go to police than lesbians, according to studies of victims.
At the same time, Gregory Herek, a UC Davis research psychologist who has studied gay bashing, says it is sometimes difficult to determine whether women are being targeted because of their gender or their sexual orientation.
Such variables underscore the pitfalls of hate crime statistics, which depend not only on the willingness of the victim to report an incident but also the willingness of authorities to classify a crime as bias-motivated.
The definition of a hate crime can also vary. For example, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which collects data from agencies such as the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, includes verbal harassment in its figures of gay bashing.
But unless it is accompanied by a threat of violence that the speaker has the ability to carry out, uttering an anti-gay slur is not a crime in California, which is one of 21 states that include sexual orientation in their hate crimes laws.
(Ongoing efforts to pass congressional legislation allowing federal prosecution and enhanced penalties for anti-gay hate crimes failed again this year.)
In California, an offense is deemed a hate crime--and therefore carries enhanced penalties--if bias or hatred based on the victim’s real or perceived race, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation is a substantial factor in its commission.
National Attitudes Reflected Locally
Reported anti-gay incidents in Los Angeles County have swung back and forth dramatically this decade. In 1992, the Human Relations Commission recorded 161. In 1996, the figure rose to 338. Then last year it fell to 220.
Nationally, gay rights activists say hate crimes are on the rise. To some extent that trend reflects a simple increase in reporting, as opposed to actual incidents.
Christopher Bock, a 50-year-old Los Angeles writer, remembers a time when the average gay-bashing victim would never have thought to complain, because to do so would have identified him or her as homosexual.
At the same time, the growing openness and visibility of gays and lesbians makes them not only less likely to stay silent about an attack, it also can make them a more inviting target.
“Things have changed, but along with that change comes a great deal of residue and risk,” said Bock, who has experienced his share of harassment in recent years. “We isolate and push further those people who are adamant that it’s not OK. Where they may have tolerated silence, they may not now tolerate [openness].”
Don Norman, a 62-year-old retired therapist, says anti-gay harassment is worse than when he was young. “When I was going to school, people didn’t call you faggot and queer. Now kids are subjected to this on the school grounds and no one protects them.”
Psychologist Karen Franklin argues that society’s disapproval of homosexuality is so far-reaching that those who gay-bash are in effect simply carrying out the dominant cultural message.
“It’s so culturally normative that we shouldn’t be thinking of these individuals as extreme or aberrant,” said Franklin, who works with Washington state prisoners and has researched gay bashing.
Whereas criminals often have a sense they’ve done something wrong, Franklin says, those who attack gays frequently “think other people are going to approve.”
Hate crime laws are not the answer, she says. “It’s too late a point in the process. It’s not going to deter anybody.”
Franklin says prevention efforts such as cracking down on anti-gay harassment in schools would have a greater impact.
UCLA research psychologist Ed Dunbar agrees that anti-gay attitudes are common, but his study of Los Angeles County hate crimes has led him to different conclusions about the bashers.
Those arrested in anti-gay hate crimes have often planned the attack and have criminal records, found Dunbar, who favors hate crime laws as a societal statement that such behavior is particularly egregious. “We are dealing with people who are capable of doing this again. . . . You really can’t fix a lot of these cats.”
Whatever the motivation for gay bashing, it touches more than the individual victim.
Hate crimes “function as a form of terrorism,” Herek said. “When one person is bashed, it is interpreted by others in the community as, ‘It could have been me.’ ”
That sense of identification may intimidate--or it may galvanize.
The Shepard death, said UCLA student Henderson, “provoked a lot of people into being more out than maybe they have been before. . . . It’s like, ‘This is shocking, I have to do something.’ ”