Call them hate crimes or plain old assault and murder. But attacks on homosexuals in America are increasing, and as gay men and women become more open and venture farther into the heartland, political leaders and advocacy groups are scrambling for solutions.
This week, as Americans mourned the death of an openly homosexual University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, after a brutal beating outside Laramie, Wyo., advocates renewed their call for more stringent punishment for those who victimize persons because of race, religion, or sexual orientation.
"America is still largely ignoring hate crimes against gays and lesbians," says Kris Pratt, a policy advocate at the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group in Washington. "But things like Matthew Shepard's death can bring us closer to dealing with it."
Whether American politicians and voters are ready to speak with one voice on the emotional - and sometimes divisive - issue of hate crimes has yet to be seen. Many conservatives and evangelical Christians say a crime is a crime and urge tougher sentences overall - not just for those who target homosexuals. But advocates argue that without specific laws, many criminals, and even judges, won't take anti-gay crimes seriously.
"Think about it. Down South, committing an act of murder against an African-American once was not considered to be a serious crime, and many criminals thought they wouldn't be prosecuted for it," says Christine Quinn, spokeswoman for the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs in New York. "They were right."
Today, 42 states have hate-crime statutes on their books, and 22 of them specifically list homosexuals as a possible victim class. Although these laws have not reduced hate crimes overall, Ms. Quinn says, they have had a profound effect in areas in which they are strictly enforced.
"The people who tend to commit hate crimes are younger, not career criminals; they're usually just out for a joy ride," says Quinn. So when a state, city, or county increases the penalty for hate crimes, as Cook County in Illinois did in 1995, young people take notice. "After the passage of a statute in Cook County, hate crimes decreased three years in a row, both for anti-gay and anti-Semitic attacks."
The problem of hate crimes against homosexuals would seem to require more than a few stern statutes. After race and religion, sexual orientation is the third most common factor in American hate crimes.
What is surprising about this fact is not only the prevalence of such crimes for such a small segment of society, but also the increase in attacks at a time when overall violent crime rates continue to drop. In 1996, according to the most recent FBI crime statistics, 11.6 percent of all reported hate crimes were based on sexual orientation, compared with 8.9 percent in 1991. The total number of actual cases increased as well, as hate crimes nearly doubled during this period.
Troubling as these figures sound, experts say they are probably far short of the true number of attacks. The majority of homosexual victims (and heterosexual victims who were thought to be homosexual) are reluctant to report an attack as a hate crime. Police stations aren't necessarily safe either: Reported attacks by officers against homosexuals increased by 76 percent nationwide in 1997, according to one survey.
Even so, some gay-advocacy groups that keep their own numbers say they have noticed troubling patterns in anti-gay hate crimes. For one thing, the most dangerous month for homosexuals tends to be June, a month when hundreds of gay pride parades and festivals are held across the country.
"When the larger society is faced with the gay and lesbian experience, the more violent segments of that society often react in very heinous ways by bashing back," says Ms. Pratt of Human Rights Campaign.
In part in response to a more visible gay presence in the public eye, national political and religious leaders have recently increased their focus on the gay lifestyle. This month, a coalition of conservative religious groups, including the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council, bought full-page advertisements in The New York Times, USA Today, and other papers calling on homosexuals to seek healing for their lifestyles. (Television commercials along this line are also in the works.)
For their part, these conservative Christians argue they are merely reaching out to a community that "needs healing." Like many conservatives, they resist the call for more hate-crime statutes, arguing that the Constitution already outlaws crimes such as assault or murder. Increasing the penalty for certain crimes, they say, comes dangerously close to giving "special rights" to a special few.
The largest of such groups is the Christian Coalition, which in the past has fought against a range of gay-rights measures, including hate-crime statutes that include homosexuals as victims and bills that would give gay domestic partners the same rights as heterosexual married couples.
Even so, in its statement on the Shepard murder, the coalition made an effort to steer clear of polemics.
"Those who committed this murder must be dealt with swiftly by the criminal-justice system," said Randy Tate, spokesman for the Christian Coalition, in a statement condemning the Shepard murder. "There should be zero toleration in a civilized society for people who commit such acts of senseless violence. In this country, all murder is a hate crime."