Ask any person of color in the United States and they’ll tell you the struggle for their civil rights is an ongoing one, not a part-time one: with gains and elation come setbacks and dejection. This too is true in the fight for LGBT rights. For all of our successes there have been—and there will continue to be—audacious attempts to hold us down. The push-pull struggle for (and against) our civil rights is illustrated here by examining hate crime data and anti-gay hate group data in the U.S. with a focus on the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage.
In 2004 Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in the United States. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that it was unlawful under the Massachusetts constitution to allow only heterosexual couples to marry. Ten other jurisdictions have since followed suit (California and Connecticut in 2008; Maine, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Vermont in 2009; Washington, DC in 2010; New York in 2011; and Maryland and Washington in 2012). However in California Proposition 8's passage overturned same-sex marriage on November 4, 2008; and, while the California Supreme Court upheld Prop 8 with their disappointing May 26, 2009 ruling, the case appears to await its fate—like it or not—in the hands of the United States Supreme Court (in February 2012 the 9th Circuit Court upheld a lower court ruling that deemed Prop 8 unconstitutional). Likewise, in Maine, on May 6, 2009 same-sex marriage was passed into law and it was supposed to go into effect later that summer. However, the law was overturned by popular vote on November 3, 2009, before taking effect (Maine voters will decide—again—whether to legalize same-sex marriage this November). In other places where it was passed by state governments, same-sex marriage will also be on the next ballot. In Maryland, for example, the governor (Martin O’Malley, a Democrat) signed into law on February 24, 2012, a same-sex marriage bill that the state Senate had passed by three votes (25-22) the day before. It will be a referendum ballot issue for Maryland voters in November. Ditto for Washington state with its Referendum 74.
Although there are many forces that oppose All Things Rainbow in the United States—from the Republican Party to the Mormon, Roman Catholic, and countless evangelical Protestant churches to specific malignant individuals—active anti-gay hate groups are perhaps among the worst if only because their raison d’être is to keep us shackled by their oppression. Their rhetoric becomes louder and more hateful each time they lose a cause. As seen in the graph below, their numbers have climbed from one in 1998 to 27 in 2011. It’s no coincidence that the number of these homophobic hate groups began to surge the year the first state legalized same-sex marriage.
It is also no coincidence that active anti-gay hate groups have been spreading in states where same-sex marriage laws have passed (including in California where, as mentioned, same-sex marriage hangs in limbo) as is illustrated by the red line in the graph below.
As of 2011 30% of all anti-gay hate groups were active in those few swaths of America where same-sex marriage is (or temporarily was) on the books. Latest figures from the Southern Poverty Law Center reveal that the birthplace of legal same-sex marriage—Massachusetts—now has two active anti-gay hate groups; the Bay State had no such groups in 2004 when it passed same-sex marriage into law. Similarly, an active anti-gay hate group sprung up in New York the year before same-sex marriage was legalized there; the group is still actively functioning. Washington, DC and California have five active anti-gay hate groups between them, latest tallies show. The more we mobilize, the more our opponents mobilize.
Though public polling clearly is against these bigoted groups' traditional, restrictive stance on marriage, their growing numbers—even in places where we’ve won the right to marry—indicate they show no signs of lessening their efforts. Although they've been handed more losses than victories, anti-gay hate groups are not going down without a fight. In November's election, Omahans will vote to keep or repeal an LGBT rights ordinance that was passed by Omaha's city council earlier this year. The opposition to the ordinance is an active hate group. The backlash against similar city ordinances is also happening elsewhere including in Lincoln, Nebraska where an anti-gay group seems to have killed an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance even though the ordinance was passed by the Lincoln city council by a decisive 5-2 vote earlier this year.
To some it may come as a surprise that the number of reported sexual orientation-based hate crime incidents as a percentage of all hate crime incidents has also increased since 2004 as shown in the graph below. This has occurred even as hate crimes have waxed and waned over the years as general crime rates typically do. The relative risk of being a hate crime victim, if you're a gay man or a lesbian, is staggeringly high. Think that's bad? Ask any trans person and you'll learn that the risk of a transperson being a hate crime victim is off the charts. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs last year reported that violent crimes against people in the LGBT community rose 13% in 2010, and that minorities and transgender women were more likely to be targeted. The NCAVP reported that in 2010 27 LGBT hate crime homicides occurred, up from 22 in 2009. The 2010 figure was the second-highest total since the coalition began tracking such crimes in 1996. Of those killed, 70% were minorities and 44% were trans women. If you ever needed a reason why people of color (regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity) need to be on board in the struggle for LGBT civil rights and why LGBT people (regardless of their skin color) need to be on board in the ongoing struggle for racial equality, it's right there in that previous sentence. How bad is 27 LGBT hate crime homicides per year? Very: it's one new murder every paycheck you receive if you are paid bi-weekly. So every time you hold a new paystub in your hand, pause to remember one of us has been slaughtered because of our sexual orientation or gender identity.
In 1996, 11.6% of all hate crime incidents reported to the FBI were due to sexual-orientation bias; by the end of 2010 it had shot up to 19.27%—that is, in 2010 almost one in five hate crimes committed nationwide was due to sexual-orientation bias. Stated differently, the graph above shows a 66% increase in the percentage of all hate crime incidents due to sexual orientation bias from 1996 to 2010—a period where same-sex marriage and other LGBT rights issues went from pipedreams to hard-won realities. Thus, with our victories has come an increasingly concentrated focus of violence against us.
Although you won't find this written anywhere (yet) in the mainstream media, there is also a connection between anti-gay hate groups and violence (and the threat of violence) directed at the LGBT communities in America. Specifically, there is a statistically significant correlation between the number of anti-gay hate groups in the United States from 1998 through 2010 and the number of sexual orientation-based hate crime incidents as a percentage of all hate crime incidents nationally during that same timeframe (r = .6481; df = 11; t = 2.82; p = 0.0166, two-tailed test). Anti-gay hate group members don't commit anti-gay hate crimes, because they don't need to: their spewed bile invites others to do their bidding for them. Members of anti-gay hate groups will be the first to lie, and say their words and actions are political in nature only and that they don't incite LGBT-directed violence. Look at the first and third graphs again; the stats don't lie: there is a robust correlation between the active numbers of anti-gay hate groups and LGBT-directed violence in America. While it's always a good reminder to say correlation does not equate to causation, in this case I believe it does.
To show that the backlash against the civil rights gains the LGBT communities have made is real, it's worth looking at sexual orientation-based hate crimes specifically in places where same-sex marriage has been passed into law. In the five graphs below, sexual-orientation hate crime data is shown for five states that have legalized same-sex marriage. In all five graphs the data is split to show sexual-orientation hate crime incidents as a percent of all hate crime incidents before and after same-sex marriage went into effect in each of those five states.
Examining the Massachusetts graph (perhaps the most important of all five state graphs because of the longer time frame involved), we see that the Bay State has a higher percentage of hate crime incidents due to sexual orientation bias than the rest of the Northeast and when compared with the nation. This is true before and after marriage equality became law in Massachusetts in 2004. I believe the reason for this finding is probably due to a combination of (a) better reporting of anti-gay hate crimes by police to the FBI (that is, Massachusetts police departments likely do a better job of calling an anti-gay hate crime an anti-gay hate crime) and (b) a greater willingness on the part of LGBT folks in Massachusetts to report bias crimes in the first place. Also, since Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, the percentage of hate crime incidents due to sexual orientation bias as a percentage of all hate crimes has increased in Massachusetts, in the Northeast, and nationally. However, the rise in Massachusetts was 3.58 percentage points which is greater than both the rise in the Northeast (Massachusetts included) which has seen a 3.16 percentage point increase, and the rise nationally (1.8 percentage point increase). In other words the rate of acceleration of hate crimes directed at LGBT people in Massachusetts is twice that of the nation since 2004 when the Bay State legalized marriage equality. Except for Connecticut, similar results were found in other states that passed (and that have not repealed) same-sex marriage. Readers are reminded, however, that the post-marriage equality hate crime data is limited in all five states except Massachusetts. The trend is clear though: the passage of marriage equality has led to GLBT folks being targeted for violence. This isn't the only backlash.
In Iowa the backlash against marriage equality has taken the form of anti-gay groups targeting the four state Supreme Court justices who voted to legalize marriage equality. This has resulted in three of the four judges being voted off the high bench with the fourth justice up for re-election in November. Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus along with Justices David Baker and Michael Streit lost their jobs in November 2010 solely because of their commonsense vote on marriage equality.
If you think that passing a marriage equality law would result in gay men and women being less likely to be a victim of an anti-gay/lesbian hate crime, the preceding five graphs would prove you wrong. They show the stark, visual truth that we cannot sit on our butts and rest on the achievements we've made. And if you think that our heterosexual supporters are also not putting themselves in some serious jeopardy for being the champions of our civil rights, think again. With some important victories attained (the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act; the passage of marriage equality laws in most Northeast states; the repeal of the ill-conceived Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy) and the resultant backlash, there is no better time than the present to sear the wise words of the Reverend Al Sharpton into our brains: none of us can afford to be part-time civil rights activists.