The shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando last week put homophobic violence in the spotlight. On a regular basis, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face hate crimes. These incidents are not always deadly, yet they still leave deep physical and emotional scars. They occur against a larger backdrop, a whole story that the data on hate crimes in Texas don’t tell.
Last week, Fort Worth’s Celebration Community Church was filled with candle light, as mourners remembered the victims of the Orlando shooting. Pastor Lee Ann Bryce told the packed church that gay clubs are sacred spaces.
“They’re like churches, or at least like churches should be: Places where you’re welcomed just the way you are. Places where you can gather with loving, supportive community and sort of get bolstered up before going back into our homophobic world,” Bryce said.
The shooting at an Orlando gay club pierced that sense of safety. It also illuminated the fact that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people face risk for being themselves on a daily basis. That homophobic world, Bryce said, didn’t go away with victories like the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, or the right to serve openly in the military.
“I think it is just such a reality check that people every day are killed because they’re GLBT people. Killed or brutalized in some way,” Bryce says. “And it’s not just in faraway places that it happens. It’s right here that it happens.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety reports 743 hate crimes based on sexual orientation over the past 15 years. That’s one in five hate crimes in Texas. It’s the second most common hate crime after racially motivated crimes, and state data shows that crimes targeting gay, lesbian and bisexual people are making up a larger share of hate crimes in recent years.
And there are likely many more hate crimes that don’t show up in the data.
“The silence speaks a whole lot. We have a huge underreporting problem across the country.”
Cheryl Drazin is a lawyer with the Anti-Defamation League in Dallas. She says just five percent of police departments in Texas reported hate crimes data. They’re not required to.
The other underreporting problem, Drazin says: There are crimes that don’t ever get reported to police.
“Victims, sometimes, do not report, and, understandably within the LGBT community, it’s a piece of their personal identity that they would have to share publicly that their families may not know about, that their employers may not know about, that their faith communities may not know about,” Drazin says. “And that’s a really big deal.”
A big deal, Drazin says, in a state that doesn’t protect LGBT people from being fired or denied housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Another huge gap in the Texas data: The state’s hate crime law only includes sexual orientation, not gender identity. That means, according to state law, violence that targets transgender people because they are transgender is not a hate crime. Federal law and some states do include gender identity, though.
“The data would suggest that the transgender community is even more targeted that even the gay, lesbian and bisexual community if we were really measuring numbers,” Drazin says. “In fact, the 2016 numbers indicate that there have been more crimes against transgender individuals this year than there were last year, and we’re only in June.”
Drazin says race, gender and sexual orientation often intersect in hate crimes. Just look at a recent case in Corpus Christi, where a gay black man was tortured and sodomized by two men, who used both racist and homophobic slurs throughout.
“I don’t think that it’s known whether it was a bigger deal that he was black, or that he was gay, or that he was a man in this situation. I don’t think we can really carve it out to really simplify it that way,” Drazin says.
Chuck Smith of Equality Texas says recent LGBT victories and greater acceptance have also sparked a backlash from conservative politicians.
“It is those very advancements that have fueled people who really don’t believe that LGBT people should be treated equally,” Smith says.
Smith points to the heated debate around transgender people’s access to bathrooms as just the latest flash point. He says LGBT organizations have seen calls from transgender people concerned about their safety spike as lawmakers have painted transgender people as a threat.
“We live in an environment where the activity and the rhetoric has risen to such a level that it does put certain people in fear for their own safety,” Smith says.
Outside the Celebration Community Church in Fort Worth, after the vigil let out, Whitney Strange she says the shootings in Orlando have left her shaken. She’s even had younger friends talk about going back into the closet. She wonders if they’re not as hardened to homophobia as she is after growing up with more open hate.
“I had Cokes thrown at me, my locker slammed shut, spit on, just purely for looking like I was even walking with another girl,” she says. “Or, for even looking like a boy.”
Strange is now in her thirties. She says the more commonplace violence and aggression people in her community suffer --whether it fits the definition of a hate crime or not – leaves LGBT people willing to accept more abuse than they should.
“It’s really hard to say somebody cursed at me, spit at me, or threw a glass bottle out of a car, I’m going to report it. If it’s been happening your whole life, is it a hate crime?” she says. “It’s normal.”
Strange says she hopes that people in the LGBT community will find strength in coming forward to report hate crimes. That is, until those hate crimes are a thing of the past.