LGBT People Are More Likely to Be Targets of Hate Crimes than Any Other Minority Group

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The issue of hate crimes committed against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation drew national attention after the brutal beating and murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 (CNN Library, 2017). The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (signed a decade later by President Obama) recognized, for the first time, that crimes committed against individuals due to sexual orientation were subject to hate crime classification and, therefore, stiffer penalties. While this law was necessary, unfortunately, it has not resulted in a direct decrease in violent crimes committed against members of the LBGT community

As will be shown below, LBGT individuals belong to the most sizable demographic of hate crime victims in the United States. This might strike many as a surprise due to the rapid progress the LBGT movement has experienced in recent decades. This essay will argue that, according to research, the rapid and pervasive success of the gay and lesbian rights movement has come with a downside. Rapid social change can often evoke violent responses from those who feel threatened by changing social orders. Extreme reactionaries perceive the shift in culture as a threat with greater numbers of them responding to the threat by violently targeting members of the LBGT community. 

History and Definitions

The FBI considers a crime a “hate crime” when the criminal act is motivated by an element of bias. For the purposes of research and gathering statistics, the FBI (n.d.) defines a hate crime as “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity” (para. 3). According to Levin and MacDewitt (2013), “hate offenses are directed against members of a particular group simply because of their membership in that group…the victim’s basis for an attack may be a victim’s race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender” (p. 5). FBI Director James Comey, in a speech to the Anti-Defamation League, eloquently explained why hate crimes are particularly despicable: “they strike at our sense of self, our sense of belonging. The end result is a loss: loss of trust; loss of dignity, and in the worst case, loss of life” (Comey qtd. in Middlebrook, 2017, para. 1). 

Due to the broad basis for a bias-related attack, hate crimes do more than harm individual victims but can have a psychological impact on entire communities who share the targeted trait of the victim (Bell & Perry, 2015). The first federal law addressing hate crimes came with the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which gave added protection to individuals targeted on the basis of race, religion or national origin. In 2009 this definition of “hate crime” was expanded by Congress in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act to cover gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability (Middlebrook, 2017).  

Throughout this paper, the acronym LBGT will be used, referring to lesbian, bi, gay and transsexual individuals. While the acronym LBGTQ is sometimes used in literature, the Q for “questioning” is not a demographic covered by legal definitions of hate crime statistics. The very nature of an individual questioning one’s sexuality, in fact, is definitionally problematic from a legal perspective both due to a low likelihood that individuals within the questioning category would publicly identify as members of the LBGTQ community and also because they are less likely to either be targeted or to report crimes against them based on sexual orientation. For that reason, LBGT rather than LBGTQ will be used throughout the course of this paper.   

Examining the Data

Even considering the sizable numbers of LGBT victims of hate crimes, some have suggested that these numbers are deflated on account of an unwillingness of LBGT individuals to report crimes committed against them. According to Kingkade (2015), “One reason why same-sex and trans assaults go unreported, according to multiple students, is that many LGBT survivors fear not being taken seriously because of stereotypes about their gender identity or sexual orientation” (para. 12). This is a perennial problem with hate crime statistics generally. The more a particular demographic is likely to be targeted, the psychological toll taken by recognizing that they were targeted for a component of themselves they cannot change leads many to either not report the crime against them at all, or to suggest that the crime was motivated by something other than the trait for which they were truly targeted (Kingkade, 2015; Middlebrook, 2017). Additionally, according to a recent report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “most crimes are not reported to the police, and those that are reported are frequently not classified as hate crimes by local jurisdictions” (Park & Mykhyalyshyn, 2016, para. 16). In other words, the situation for LGBT victims of hate crimes is probably significantly worse than even the troubling statistics reveal. 

Analysis of the Data

According to a recent New York Times article, even before the shooting at the Orlando gay nightclub in 2016 (the incident will be addressed later in this essay), data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation suggested that in 2014, the LGBT community overtook the Jewish community as the most likely target of hate crimes in America (Park & Mykhyalyshyn, 2016). According to Park and Mykhyalyshyn (2016) “nearly a fifth of the 5,462 so-called single-bias hate crimes reported to the F.B.I. in 2014 was because of the target’s sexual orientation, or, in some cases, their perceived orientation” (para. 6). 

A closer look at the data demonstrates that between 2012 and 2015 a disproportionately high number of black transgender women were targeted as victims of homicide at 39%--significantly more than the second most highly populated group of targets, black gay men at 11%. The vast majority of the attacks (47%) were by shooting, followed by stabbing at a distant 15% (Park & Mykhyalyshyn, 2016). According to Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, “transgender women of color are facing an epidemic of violence that occurs at the intersections of racism, sexism and transphobia—issues that advocates can no longer afford to address separately” (Griffin qtd. in Park & Mykhyalyshyn, 2016, para. 25).

Counterintuitively, one reason that gays remain the most frequent target of hate crimes is that the culture on LGBT issues has changed so quickly. American society and culture have made more progress in LGBT issues in a shorter span of time than arguably any other major social issue in the nation’s past. Indeed, since the early 1970s when Maryland became the nation’s first state to statutorily outlaw gay marriage until the recent Obergefell v. Hodges decision wherein the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed gay marriage as a constitutional right, the American conscience has undergone a radical evolution. Less than a decade before Obergefell, in fact, many states were proposing constitutional amendments that would effectively outlaw gay marriage (Ball, 2015).  

While the battle for gay rights had been going on for decades, perhaps because it was a mostly peaceable movement, for most of that time the movement received little attention. Most dismissed the movement as a crusade on the “fringe” of left-wing political opinion.  According to Pew Research (2016) in 2001 the majority of Americans stood opposed to gay marriage by a significant margin of 57% to 25%. By 2016 those numbers effectively flipped, with 55% of Americans supporting the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. 

Change, particularly rapid change, is a difficult thing for many to swallow. While one might think that as public opinion continues to grow in support of LGBT issues that instances of hate crimes against LBGT individuals would decrease in proportion to changing opinion. That says the perpetrators of hate crimes are by no means representative of the mainstream population in either their views or behaviors. According to Park and Mykhyalyshyn (2016), “the flip side of marriage equality is that people who strongly oppose it find the shifting culture extremely disturbing” (para. 9). 

Indeed, as minority populations ascend toward mainstream acceptance they often fall prey, historically, to the perpetrators of hate crimes. According to Comstock (1992), the Civil Rights movement saw an increase in violent crimes perpetrated against blacks particularly as the movement gained momentum and began to re-shape social attitudes toward race. Likewise, as the gay rights movement proceeded toward its climax in the Obergefell decision, some of those who resisted the prevailing tide of social change reacted negatively

While not all who oppose Obergefell or disagree with gay marriage generally resort to violence, a fringe of those who held such viewpoints, as they decreased in popularity, have been spurred on toward violence. Rapid social change has often, in various scenarios, resulted in violent outbursts from some associated with whatever party of an earlier majority began to lose power. It appears that the struggle for gay equality in America has been met with the same kind of last-ditch resistance. 

Unfortunately, even for blacks, victimization of hate crimes remains a problem several decades after the civil rights movement. If LBGT individuals are going to be spared such long-term violent opposition, new strategies will need to be envisioned to counter hate crimes and to enhance penalties against the perpetrators of them.  There is some reason to hope. While the civil rights movement birthed hate crime legislation, the specifics of such legislation and effective ways to carry it out through both enforcement and punishment are better understood than in the past.  An additional study, however, is clearly needed to examine how particular laws and policies targeted at hate crimes lessens or, perhaps, increases such incidents.  

New Consequences and Interpretations

It is becoming increasingly evident that hate crimes are an issue more complicated than single-bias. As addressed above, the grossly disproportionate targeting of transsexual black women as victims of hate crimes demonstrates that a number of factors are involved. Further research should be conducted to examine precisely why this particular demographic is particularly vulnerable to hate crimes. That said, it can be reasonably hypothesized that as transgender issues have risen to the forefront in recent years after Obergefell effectively declared a victory for gay and lesbian issues generally, the quick ascendancy of transgender issues to the forefront of controversy might be inheriting much of the violence previously targeted toward gays and lesbians generally.

Studies of attitudes in American black communities should be further conducted to determine why it is that black trans-women, specifically, are so highly targeted. It may very well be that a conflation of the pervasiveness of black-on-black crime, which has also reached epidemic proportions, with trans-directed hate crime has led to this deadly combination. 

While tensions between Christian values and the agenda of the gay rights agenda have often come into conflict throughout the course of the gay rights movement, a growing population of American Muslims who also object to homosexuality—typically even more forcibly than Christians—has led to additional complications in navigating the issue of LBGT-directed hate crimes. 

The complexity of this issue proverbially slapped the entire nation in the face as a result of one of the worst mass shootings in American history. On June 12, 2016, the world was shocked at the news of one of the most deadly shootings in American history. After an attacker, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, who had sworn allegiance to ISIL/ISIS had burst into the Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, FL and opened fire 49 individuals was left dead and 53 others were injured. It did not take long, after the tragedy, for individuals to begin debating whether the attack was a hate crime, an act of terrorism, or both (Rokach, Ahmed & Patel, 2016). According to a poll conducted in the days following the Orlando tragedy 14% considered the crime “mostly terrorism,” 25% considered it “mostly hate crime,” but a vast majority, 57% considered it a combination of the two (Park & Mykhyalyshyn, 2016). In fact, only two months before the shooting, the Husseini Islam Center had welcomed Islamic scholar, Sheikh Sekaleshfar to speak at an event. The invitation stirred up some controversy in Orlando’s local news on account of Sekaleshfar’s 2013 statement that, pertaining to homosexuals, “death is the sentence. We know there’s nothing to be embarrassed about this, death is the sentence…We have to have that compassion for people, with homosexuality, it’s the same, out of compassion, let’s get rid of them now” (TheUnitedWest, 2016).   Indeed, while Sekaleshfar has indicated that his statement could not apply in an American context, the very fact that it had been replayed repeatedly on Orlando news in the months leading up to the tragedy may very well have played a role in the attacker’s motivations. 

This correlation of events has led some, such as right-wing controversial provocateur Milo Yiannopoulous (2016) to argue that the more western countries welcome Muslims—coming from countries where mainstream Islam convicts homosexuals of a crime punishable by death—are effectively placing gays and lesbians at risk. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to evaluate the validity of Yiannopoulous’ comments, it is at least worth recognizing that as disparately passionate worldviews collide in a world where boundaries separating cultures and worldviews are thinner than at any time past, radical viewpoints such as these are likely to garnish some sympathies. 

Even as the gay rights movement has often embraced the notion of tolerance as a vehicle to advance their legal rights when certain perspectives—be they religious or secular—actively promote hate crime it raises the issues of the limits of tolerance in a peaceable society. This is not to say that intolerable speech should be silenced, but it does mean that Americans should be clear that worldviews which promote actual violence against minority populations, including members of the LBGT community, should be rejected as incompatible America’s western values.  

Conversely, however, incidents like the Orlando shooting also run the risk of turning the tables and eliciting hate crimes against Muslims. If one were to adopt Yiannopoulous’ anti-Islam stance, there is undoubtedly a risk of losing one’s soul for the sake of winning a battle. After all, if acceptance and tolerance are a western value, one should be careful not to allow necessary limits on the tolerable (i.e. violence) disparage entire classes of people. Addressing these issues responsibly requires careful nuance, but also responsible honesty about the challenges today’s rapidly changing world presently. Addressing these issues, where colliding cultures and values conflict, will be a major challenge for the next generation to address. How can American culture embrace its value of tolerance if ideologies, which fall under the umbrella of what should be tolerated, advance violent forms of intolerance and lead to hate crimes?  The answers are not simple, nor should they be over-simplified.  Nonetheless, it is imperative that such answers be sought.  

In addition to the complications associated with hate crime perpetrators and what motivates them to target their victims, the role of policing relevant to hate crimes has also raised serious concerns in recent years. A recent study by Levy and Levy (2017) found that polices in police forces often encourage discrimination, possibly leading to increases in hate crime incidents. As addressed earlier in this essay, one of the difficulties in the accuracy of hate crime data is the unwillingness or, at the very least, the neglect of local police departments to accurately classify some crimes as hate crimes. Individual law enforcement officers, however, should not shoulder the entire blame. While police officers’ reports assemble initial facts in a case, it is ultimately up to prosecutors and judges to interpret those facts and prosecute hate crimes accordingly. 

Clearly, the more hate crimes are studied the more it becomes evident that a variety of factors motivate the perpetrators of these crimes. A perpetrator’s psychological state, his religious or moral views, and his experience and biased perspective on the target-victim are a few components involved. The psychology of hate crime perpetrators, in comparison to the perpetrators of similar crimes that do not possess a bias-oriented motivating factor, is a study worthy of further pursuit.  

Conclusion

Western and American society is undergoing rapid and pervasive changes, at nearly every level of society and culture. Some of these changes are good and peaceable, but even such positive changes are sometimes met with less-than-peaceable responses. While some conservatives oppose a classification of certain crimes as “hate crimes,” the fact that such crimes target individuals based on a particular trait that is generally outside of one’s control are particularly concerning. Hate crimes have a tendency to strike fear into an entire population who, at the news of such a crime occurring, find a reason to worry about whether or not they might be targeted for the same reason. While some classes of crime can be avoided by behavior—choosing not to engage in risky or illicit business, refraining from engaging in certain social circles, etc.—the very nature of hate crimes makes it difficult for even the most cautious and aware of potential victims to avoid. There was nothing anyone at the Orlando gay nightclub could have done to more wisely avoid becoming targeted. Thus, hate crimes are more damaging than other crimes of comparable action because the perpetration of these crimes has social consequences that can impact entire communities of people.  At the same time, as America becomes more diverse—in terms of sexual orientation, religion, race, and ethnicity—a number of factors complicate the contexts wherein hate crimes occur and how society should respond to them. For example, as addressed above, as a result of the Orlando nightclub shooting some have suggested that Islam itself is the problem and that its presence in the United States represents an existential threat to the gay and lesbian community. While such arguments should not be dismissed out of hand, they should also be heavily scrutinized lest reactionary positions turn potential hate crime victims into potential hate crime perpetrators.  Ultimately, however, it is clear that while society changes not every member of society will go along with the prevailing cultural trends. The more rapid the change, the more shocking it becomes to those who oppose it. This phenomenon likely explains the increased incidents of hate crimes perpetrated against the LBGT community. It also explains why similar trends were observed in crimes against African Americans during the Civil Rights movement and why crimes against transgendered women specifically have risen to prominence as uniquely transgender issues have taken center stage in public discourse and debate.  There are no easy solutions to the problems outlined above. Societies that grow and evolve are apt to experience some growing pangs, That said if the pain of such pangs can be minimized and hate crimes against LGBT individuals reduced, policies and procedures to do so should be vigorously pursued.

References

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Bell, J. G., & Perry, B. (2015). Outside looking in: The community impacts of anti-lesbian, gay, and bisexual hate crime. Journal of homosexuality, 62(1), 98-120.

Comstock, G. D. (1992). Violence against lesbians and gay men. Columbia University Press.

CNN Library (2017). LBGT rights milestones fast facts. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/19/us/lgbt-rights-milestones-fast-facts/

FBI (n.d.) Hate crimes. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/civil-rights/hate-crimes

Kingkade, T. (2015). LBGT students face more sexual harassment and assault, and more trouble reporting it. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/lgbt-students-sexual-assault_us_55a332dfe4b0ecec71bc5e6a

Levin, J., & MacDevitt, J. (2013). Hate crimes: The rising tide of bigotry and bloodshed. Springer.

Levy, B. L., & Levy, D. L. (2017). When love meets hate: the relationship between state policies on gay and lesbian rights and hate crime incidence. Social science research, 61, 142-159.

Middlebrook, H. (2017). The fascinating, if unreliable history of hate crime tracking in the US. CNN.  Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/05/health/hate-crimes-tracking-history-fbi/

Park, H. & Iaryna, M. (2016) L.G.B.T. people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority group The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nyt.com.

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Rokach, A., Ahmed, R., & Patel, K. (2017). Senseless violence: a global problem with psychological ramifications. Routledge. 

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Yiannopoulous, M. (2016). The left chose Islam over gays. Now 100 people are dead or maimed in Orlando. Breitbart. Retrieved from http://www.breitbart.com/milo/2016/06/12/left-chose-islam-gays-now-100-people-killed-maimed-orlando/.