A woman was beaten and raped by four men. They terrorized her for close to an hour and, when they were done, left her naked in the street. Throughout the attack, they taunted her with the reason she was chosen: She is a lesbian.
It happened in Richmond, and the attack was so horrific that the Chief of Police lost sleep over it. The sheer brutality assures coverage in the national press and years of citation as a visceral example of a homophobic hate crime.
A hate crime is a crime motivated by the attacker’s prejudice. Hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation are consistently the second most frequently occurring – after race and ethnicity – and are further characterized by a high level of violence and a proportionally higher incidence of personal attacks than the other categories. Hate crimes happen when a society is intolerant of a group of people.
Intolerance used to mean the categorical rejection of a belief or behavior, but since the 1960s, intolerance has come to include the rejection of a personal identity. Lise Noel writes that, whereas the rejection of belief is based on some notion of absolute truth and rejection of behavior on a defined moral order, rejection of personal identity is based on a presumed human hierarchy.
Imagine that some people are intrinsically better than others because of skin color, gender, sexual orientation and a few other characteristics over which they have no control. Actually, it’s not difficult to imagine at all; this reality surrounds us.
Reality is a social construct formed from basic assumptions about how the world works and expressed through cultural norms, some of which are codified into laws. Culture and laws are necessary to satisfy our need for stability and meaning.
And here is where explanations about hate crimes become complicated. Need for stability and meaning notwithstanding, reality changes with each generation, especially for Asian immigrants and refugees who must reconcile their reality with a new one. As long as those changes do not disturb basic assumptions, change happens relatively painlessly.
But try and challenge strongly held basic assumptions, and society’s preservation engines will come roaring to life, desperately trying to prevent having to rethink those assumptions. LGBTs challenge some basic assumptions and are attacked, set apart, denied rights. Denying LGBTs the rights that others have makes them a vulnerable target.
In California, hate crimes are on the rise. In 2007, anti-homosexuality hate crimes constituted 18.4 percent of all hate crimes, up 77 percent from 2006. The level of violence is grotesque: a 21-year-old man beaten to death, a 15-year-old boy shot to death, a 28-year-old woman beaten and raped.
Victims are reluctant to report their cases to the police. Over half of the victims report that the police are indifferent, verbally and physically abusive, or they must endure slurs. We must have touched the most basic of assumptions.
The change we seek is inevitable and our fervent wish for the coming year is that when it arrives, people will rethink their assumptions and not resort to violence.