October 17, 2006

Antigay Hate Crimes: The Numbers Game

Posted at 1:53 pm (Pacific Time)

Are hate crimes against sexual minorities still a problem?

Throughout the 1990s, each annual release of the FBI’s hate crime statistics was accompanied by news stories about that year’s disturbing increase in antigay violence and victimization. The rising tide of crimes based on the victim’s sexual orientation was repeatedly cited as proof that more funds were needed for victim services, and that law enforcement agencies should devote more resources to preventing and prosecuting antigay attacks.

Sure enough, the number of officially documented antigay crimes increased each year: from 425 incidents in 1991, to 767 in 1992, to 860 in 1993. With few exceptions, the count continued to climb annually until 2001, when it peaked at 1,393 incidents.

Then it began to decline: to 1,244 (in 2002), to 1,239 (in 2003), to 1,197 (in 2004).

Yesterday, the FBI released the latest data, which show another decrease. In 2005, 1,017 antigay crime incidents were reported by local law enforcement authorities.

So are antigay hate crimes still a problem?

The answer is yes, for several reasons.

First, the FBI statistics understate the true extent of hate crime. As I explained in a previous post, at least half of antigay crimes aren’t reported to the police. Victims don’t report for a variety of reasons: They anticipate further harassment by the police, they fear discrimination if their sexual orientation is publicly revealed, or they simply don’t expect the police to catch the perpetrators.

Second, in addition to the physical trauma that hate crimes inflict, they have a more negative impact on victims than do “routine” crimes. As shown in a 1999 study, gay and lesbian victims of violent hate crimes suffer more serious and longer-lasting psychological effects than gay men and lesbians who are victims of violence that isn’t based on their sexual orientation.

Third, antigay hate crimes are attacks against an entire community and, as such, are a kind of terrorism. They convey the message that anyone can be targeted for violence if they’re perceived to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Thus, the impact of a hate crime extends far beyond the victim and her or his immediate circle of family and friends. Such crimes increase the feelings of vulnerability and danger experienced by the whole sexual minority community.

Let’s hope the hate crime count continues to fall in the coming years. But let’s not trap ourselves in a numbers game. Even if they decline in frequency, hate crimes against sexual minority victims are still a serious problem.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.