There was a frisson of horror among some so-called straights after the murder of Matthew Shepard, but I doubt if that stark act of homophobia is any longer in the forefront for many of those people.
I further doubt that the true depth and extent of this hatred is realized by most Americans. For instance, I was startled to see in Colbert King’s October 17 Washington Post column that “leaders of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada [are] so vehemently opposed to gays that they urged President Clinton in writing to withdraw funding for the Holocaust Museum for creating an exhibit on gays who were killed in the Holocaust.”
A more immediately pertinent index of homophobia in terms of the American system of justice— the first national Juror Outlook Survey— was recently discussed in The National Law Journal (November 1):
“The poll indicates that gays and lesbians who are parties in a trial are at least three times as likely to face a biased jury as a person who is white, African American, Hispanic, or Asian.”
As for violence against gays and lesbians, the current FBI estimate is that 11.6 percent of all hate crimes are directed at gays. That is surely a low estimate. Much antigay violence is not reported, and the police often refuse to designate such crimes as motivated by bigotry against gays— in part because they don’t admit their own revulsion toward gays.
What is not known to most Americans is the degree of violence directed against gays and lesbians. Eight years ago, wanting to write an article on this largely hidden dimension of the subject, I got an assignment from Playboy.
I don’t usually like to write for “the choir”— readers who are likely to already agree with my views— so Playboy was the right venue for the article.
During the research, I saw a piece in the September 1990 Journal of Interpersonal Violence by Kevin Berrill, director of the antiviolence project of the national Gay and Lesbian Task Force. He wrote:
“Recalling victims of murder and other attacks that she has seen, Melissa Mertz, director of victim services at Bellevue hospital . . . observed that ‘attacks against gay men were the most heinous and brutal I encountered.
” ‘They frequently involved torture, cutting, mutilation, and beating, and showed an absolute intent to rub out the human being because of his [sexual] preference.’ ”
Clearly, that was the intent of the killers of Matthew Shepard.
The savagery of these attacks continues. In the October 18 Washington Post, Justin Gillis and Patrick Gaines report: “While the brutality of the Shepard murder has plainly shocked people, it was hardly unique. In recent years, a man in San Angelo, Texas, was stabbed 90 times; a man was knifed 20 times at a hotel in Connecticut; and a man in Ulster County, New York, was stabbed and bludgeoned to death, then left for his parents to discover under the tree on Christmas morning.” (Emphasis added.)
Those responsible for unbridled brutality against gays commonly explain that they were only committing robberies. They say they didn’t know or care that the victim was gay. But, as the Washington Post reports, “the extreme violence inflicted on some of [the victims’] bodies suggests to crime experts that robbery is a secondary goal.”
The hatred of “others” I know best from experience is anti-Semitism. When I was growing up in Boston, it was foolhardy for a Jewish kid to be on the streets of our ghetto after dark. Jew bashing was an ever-popular sport among some Irish teenagers, who came calling whenever they felt an overwhelming urge to teach unforgettable lessons to Christ killers.
The worst I got was a split lip one night. But a kid in the next street had a pickax embedded in his head. From that point on, he didn’t know who or what he was. His mind had been destroyed.
What was chillingly evident during those years was that anti-Semitism started very young. On the trolley car I rode across town to school (yes, it was a trolley car), 10-and 11-year-old kids were as free with their bristling contempt for Jews as they were with their keen knowledge of Boston Red Sox batting statistics.
Nowadays (Newsday, October 19): “Daniel Dromm, an openly gay teacher at P.S. 199 in Sunnyside, says he often hears his fourth-grade students using a homophobic slur even though they don’t often know what it means, and he called New York public schools ‘a breeding ground for intolerance.’ ”
Not only schools. Many families are a breeding ground for bigotry. Among the gay-haters demonstrating at the funeral service for Matthew Shepard was— the Washington Post reported— “a young girl carrying a sign that read: ‘Fag = Anal Sex.’ ”
Meanwhile, there was recently a potentially dangerous move by the Supreme Court. The Justices refused to review a lower court decision that let stand a Cincinnati charter amendment forbidding passage of any policy or law that “gives homosexuals, lesbians, or bisexuals . . . any claim of minority or protected status.” (Emphasis added).
As the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a newspaper about legal matters, pointed out, this antigay measure “was passed to overturn, in part, an ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of a wide array of factors, including race, gender, age, and sexual orientation.”
But the same Supreme Court— in Romer v. Evans (1996)— ruled that Colorado could not amend its constitution to prohibit municipalities from including gays and lesbians in antidiscrimination laws.
In Romer, the Supreme Court said gays and lesbians should not be made “strangers to the law.” Why does the Court appear to be contradicting itself?