In late 1989, I wrote the following article about hate crimes statistics. The article was published by Sojourners, a progressive Christian evangelical magazine that publishes economically liberal and socially conservative views consistent with the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s "seamless garment" ethic of life.
The purpose of this article was not to address the magazine’s low-key disagreement with homosexual behavior, but rather to put the magazine boldly on record against spiraling antigay violence in the late 1980s.
Largely because of opposition from Sen. Jesse Helms, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act did not pass that year; it passed in 1990 and was signed by President George H.W. Bush. The law required the federal government to collect crime data that would be volunteered by local authorities — but the law offered little incentive for local police to accurately record and forward the information.
The decline in data collection has been remarkable. For example, private organizations in 1989 aggressively surveyed local authorities and survivor-support organizations to count upward of 7,000 hate crimes attributable to the target’s perceived sexual orientation. But by 2003, the FBI seemed to be lethargically tallying barely 1,000 such crimes from a scattering of attentive police agencies. Was there a miraculous and unexplained plunge in violence against at-risk populations such as gays and lesbians, or were public officials poorly performing a task once entrusted to highly motivated victims’ rights groups?
Focus on the Family and affiliated religious-right organizations have sought advantage from the decline in data collection: Pointing to low crime tallies, they have criticized existing hate crimes laws as unnecessary and successfully opposed passage of new laws.
The Southern Poverty Law Center bluntly reported in 2000 that the FBI hate-crimes data collection effort is "in shambles." And there, perhaps, he effort remains.
Congress has extended the FBI’s official data-collection efforts a few times, but it has stumbled when attempting to move beyond number-crunching to actual crime prevention. In 2004, opposition to hate-crime prevention legislation came not only from Focus on the Family and its religious-right allies, but also from concerned free-speech organizations such as the ACLU.
After 15 years, have we made any progress in counting, much less combating, violence against at-risk populations? Are we any closer to a legislative compromise that respects free speech?
For more information on hate crimes
Hate Crimes Today: An age-old foe in modern dress
American Psychological Association
U.S Hate Crimes: Definitions and facts
Why you should care
Summary of federal initiatives on violence against minorities, women and churches
Partners Against Hate
A Decade of Violence and other reports
Human Rights Campaign
Support for survivors
Communities United Against Violence
Here’s my 1989 article on hate crimes statistics:
Violence Against Gays and Lesbians On the Rise
"I feel incredibly sad. Sad that Rebecca is dead, sad that…someone
hated who we were so much that he wanted us dead. The world is never so
bright a place after something this horrific has happened." These were
the thoughts of Claudia Brenner after an attack during a camping trip
that left her critically wounded and her best friend dead.
Brenner and Rebecca Wight, her lover, were just two of the 7,248
people reportedly victimized or brutally attacked because of their
sexual orientation in 1988, according to a recent study by the National
Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). A rough comparison with previous
years indicates a sharp rise in the rates of arson, homicide, bomb
threats, and police abuse against gays and lesbians.
The 40-page report, titled Anti-Gay Violence: Victimization and
Defamation in 1988, breaks down the statistics to reveal a battlefield
of often-concealed bigotry scarring the nation from Maine to Hawaii.
Among the compiled reports from 120 local organizations were 4,835 acts
of verbal harassment, 885 physical assaults, 713 threats of violence,
449 acts of vandalism, 205 acts of physical or verbal abuse by police,
70 homicides, 54 bomb threats, nine acts of arson, and one kidnapping.
The NGLTF study includes only reports of violence committed because
of the victim’s sexual orientation; it does not include incidents of
health-, housing-, or job-related discrimination. Most important, the
study points out that because 12 states and the majority of small U.S.
cities and towns were unable to submit any statistics, and because most
gay-lesbian hate crimes go unreported for fear of reprisal by police,
family, and employers, even the shocking levels of violence noted in
the study are but a fraction of the real crisis that has continued
unabated throughout the 1980s.
The Hate Crimes Statistics Act would require federal monitoring and
reporting of hate crimes against a wide range of minorities including
gays and lesbians. The bill passed the House in May but was facing
strong opposition from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) at press time,
according to Robert Bray of the Human Rights Campaign Fund in
WHILE FEW COLLEGE campuses compile reports of anti-gay violence on
their campuses, the NGLTF study nevertheless notes an alarming 1,411
incidents on just 30 campuses, including 387 acts of assault,
vandalism, or serious threat. On American campuses such as Lehigh
University and Dartmouth College, school newspapers print ads and
editorials that defame gay student leaders and oppose student groups
serving the civil rights and social needs of bisexual or homosexual
In an incident in April 1988 at Pennsylvania State University, a
dozen signs posted on campus stated, "Homo-cide has a definite place at
Penn State." The posters were allegedly placed by a group calling
itself the Committee for an AIDS-Free America.
Another battleground in the hate war has been the Universal
Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), which has a
special ministry to gay and lesbian Christians. According to NGLTF, MCC
reported 402 incidents at 27 of its churches in 1988, including 115
acts of assault, vandalism, or serious threat.
In August 1988, the Holy Cross MCC Church in Pensacola, Florida, was
set on fire. During the previous year, the church had faced a long
campaign of harassment, egg-throwing at an AIDS vigil, and telephoned
threats by a fundamentalist group. In Concord, California, an MCC
minister received 10 telephoned death threats in three months.
Rev. Don Eastman, an MCC pastor in Dallas for nine years, and now a
spokesperson at the denomination’s headquarters in Los Angeles, noted
that the MCC church in Jacksonville, Florida, was firebombed five times
between 1984 and 1987, leading a tide of arson, vandalism, and homicide
against Metropolitan Community Churches nationwide. In 1986, the pastor
of the MCC congregation in Stockton, California, was murdered.
Kevin Berrill, of NGLTF’s anti-violence project, said that among
mainline Christian churches, "There is no consensus on the morality of
homosexuality." But there is, he says, "a consensus that violence is
wrong. There is no question."
Eastman, who comes from an Assemblies of God background, cited
fundamentalist groups as the most worrisome cause of the attacks. But
he also noted the silence of many of the mainline denominations about
the increase in violence. To deal effectively with the problem of
violence against gays and lesbians, he said, we have to confront our
fear and ignorance of homosexuals. According to Eastman, "The best
place to start is in the churches."
By Mike Airhart
Copyright © 1989, Sojourners magazine