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Op-ed: Understanding LGBT Hate Crimes

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by Eli Winter

Driving home late one night after a fun night on the town, a woman suddenly hears gunshot blasts that are clearly meant for her. She panics and crashes her car into a telephone pole, driven to her death by an unseen assailant.

While deaths like this one are always tragic, it is easy for us to imagine that the driver probably lived in a bad part of town, or had a little too much to drink before driving home. But the death of Ty Underwood—a transgender woman of color who was shot to death by her ex-boyfriend after crashing into a telephone pole in Tyler—was both a tragedy and a cause for alarm because it was an LGBT hate crime.

While most hate-crime assaults rarely end in death, these victims report feeling more vulnerable and powerless after being attacked simply because of their identity. LGBT hate-crime victims feel especially powerless because they have often grown up learning to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity—that most intrinsic part of themselves.

All hate-crime victims view the world as more dangerous and unpredictable as a result of being assaulted. That feeling is only reinforced for LGBT hate-crime victims, who may already be hiding who they are at work, or dealing with being denied access to healthcare and full marriage equality.

Our nation’s ineffective hate-crime laws don’t help make the world any safer for LGBT people. Although federal hate-crime laws now include LGBT citizens, the federal government can only prosecute those crimes if they are committed across state lines, involve interstate commerce, or are referred by local authorities to federal prosecutors. Texas law, meanwhile, only protects against hate crimes based on sexual orientation, not gender identity. Ty’s loved ones have said that her death was motivated by hate, but it cannot be prosecuted as such in Texas because it would be motivated by her gender identity, not her sexual orientation. Even when the Texas law is invoked to prosecute a crime, its limitations often prevent it from actually doing its job. In the last decade, Texas district attorneys invoked the state’s hate-crime law on approximately 2,000 crimes. They received convictions for 10 of those crimes, and only one received a trial by jury.

More than 250,000 Americans experience hate crimes every year, but only one-third of those crimes are ever reported. While 50 percent of LGBT hate-crime victims report these incidents to the police, many victims are met with police indifference, discouragement, or even abuse when attempting to file a report. In 17 percent of LGBT cases, police refused to file a survivor’s report. This makes LGBT victims of hate crimes even less likely to report their victimization, and the stigma they experience in their day-to-day lives is magnified because of unsuccessful attempts to do something to stop being victimized.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that 13 percent of hate crimes are violent, while the Bureau of Justice reports a more realistic 92 percent of hate crimes being violent. For hate crimes to be reported by the FBI, local police must voluntarily report them, and many departments don’t do this.

Obviously, a lot needs to change before hate crimes can become a thing of the past for the LGBT community. Just last month, John Gaspari, a local gay man, was shot, assaulted, and robbed outside of a Montrose bar as his assailants shouted “Get the fag!” No city is invulnerable—not even an extremely diverse city such as Houston. A good way to begin dealing with this violence in our community is to lobby for changes in the state’s hate-crime law. That law should be made more inclusive, and policies should be put in place to encourage, if not require, more consistent reporting and prosecution of hate crimes.

And of course, the best way to start is by teaching people to accept those who are different for who they are.

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