Lost in the “fiscal cliff” headlines dominating December’s news was the FBI’s annual hate crime statistics report confirming that, for LGBT Americans, the very ability to move about in public remains compromised by threats of violence. Fourteen years after Matthew Shepherd was murdered because he was gay, and three years after President Obama signed the hate crimes law that bears Matthew’s name, the victimization of Americans based on their sexual orientation remains real, and on the rise.
According to the FBI’s December report, while the overall number of bias-motivated incidents decreased from 2010 to 2011, the number of hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation actually increased to 1300, up almost 3 percent from the previous year. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) report mirrors this data, finding that the number of anti-LGBT murders in 2011 rose 11 percent from 2010. Thus, while reported hate crimes based on race, religion and ethnicity dropped, hate crimes based on sexual orientation rose, making it the second most common form of bias crime in America. In addition to the troubling hate crime statistics, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s 2011 National School Climate Survey reports over a third of LGBT students faced physical harassment and nearly 20 percent were assaulted in the last year.
Notably, the data almost certainly under-count anti-LGBT crimes. For one thing, the FBI did not yet record hate crimes against transgender people. Moreover, victims of hate crimes and targets of bullying often do not report to authorities. Beyond this, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s evaluation of the most recent FBI data, at least 79 cities with a population of over 100,000 either did not participate in the FBI’s reporting program, or affirmatively reported that they had no hate crimes.
There is something jolting about the news that anti-LGBT hate crimes are on the rise. Headlines suggest that hostility toward the LGBT community is becoming passé and attitudinal changes in younger Americans are vaunted. But this rosy picture is complicated by the data.
While the increase in reported acts of anti-LGBT violence may reveal the community’s willingness to report bias incidents and perception that authorities will take the reports seriously, it also reflects backlash against the increased visibility and empowerment of members of the LGBT community. These gains may serve to fuel the desperation some feel about including LGBT Americans within the circle of full humanity and citizenship. While the specific causes of anti-LGBT hate crimes may remain elusive, there are concrete measures that will reach youth before criminal acts are committed.
Three pieces of previously introduced federal legislation deserve support. The Safe Schools Improvement Act addresses bullying prevention programs and requires states to collect and report information about bullying and harassment. The Student Non-Discrimination Act forbids schools from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity and prohibits them from ignoring harassing behavior. And the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act requires colleges and universities to recognize cyberbullying as a form of harassment and to fund anti-harassment programs.
Meanwhile, we must continue to combat violence and harassment against LGBT youth and adults. ADL training programs for students, educators, and administrators at all levels promote such efforts. GLAD’s Youth Project reaches out directly to LGBT and questioning youth — whether in schools, on the streets, or in the juvenile justice system, striving to ensure that LGBTQ youth and the children of LGBT parents are safe, welcomed, and treated equally with respect in every facet of life. There is ample room to not merely maintain, but intensify, programs aimed at making anti-LGBT bias socially unacceptable, and institutionally intolerable.
The FBI report makes clear that hyping legal wins and attitudinal shifts in the LGBT rights arena ought not to mask the stubborn, unfortunate facts. Anti-LGBT bias is not a thing of the past. It is very much a problem of the present, and the only way to ensure that it does not persist is to redouble our attention to it.
Mary L. Bonauto is civil rights project director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. Jeffrey Robbins, an attorney in Boston, is chair of the Anti-Defamation League’s New England Board.