TALKING ABOUT HATE
1979, forty-three states and the federal government have introduced
hate crimes legislation in the United States. In many cases, crimes
against individuals because they are disabled, or because of their
sexual orientation, are not covered by these laws. However, people
with disabilities, gay men, lesbians, transgender and bisexual people
are much more likely to experience hate crimes than other groups
of people. For this reason, disability and sexual identity must
be included in hate crimes legislation.
What is a Hate Crime?
A "hate crime" is a criminal act
perpetrated against someone because he or she possesses, or
is perceived to possess, a particular trait or identifying
characteristic. Such traits may include ethnicity, race, gender,
sexual identity, religion, or disability. People motivated by hate
usually advertise their intentions. They may deface property, or
even scar their victims, with slogans or symbols; they may destroy
or deface positive symbols of the group they attack; they often
commit their crimes shortly after an event that expresses group
solidarity. For instance, it is common to see the number of hate
crimes against gay people increase after Gay Pride festivals.
Only recently have US legislators
broadened the concept of hate crimes to include those committed
against people with disabilities. The first indictments for disability
hate crimes were issued in June 1999. The Associated Press reported
that eight people were charged with kidnapping, harassment and conspiracy
after torturing a mentally retarded man because of his disability.
His tormentors invited him to a party where they taped him to a
chair, shaved his eyebrows, burned him with cigarettes, then choked
and beat him before abandoning him in a forest. He had previously
been attacked at two other parties.
The Forgotten Victims
People with disabilities are the
forgotten victims of hate crimes. So widespread is the failure to
recognize hate crimes against us that our very status as disabled
seems to make such violence acceptable. Indeed, a whole language
has developed which differentiates violence against people with
disabilities from other violence. Crimes
against disabled people are commonly classed as "abuse" or "neglect"
rather than named as "crimes."
Consider the following perversions
of language: "sexual abuse" means the rape of people with disabilities;
"financial abuse" means stealing from a person with a disability;
in an institutional environment, "time out" means locking a disabled
person in a dark room for days without human contact; and "neglect"
can mean torturing a person with a disability. Committed against
anyone else, these "abuses" would automatically be considered crimes.
Despite a widespread failure to
include us in discussions of hate crimes, people with disabilities
are more likely to be abused than non-disabled people. Hate crimes
against us are often chronic and severe.
In his classic study, entitled
Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People
with Disabilities, Dick Sobsey suggests that a person
with a disability is at least one-and-a-half-times more likely to
be the victim of assault or abuse than others of similar age and
Compared to nondisabled people
of the same age and gender, disabled people typically experience
more prolonged and severe abuse, with more serious effects. Indeed,
Sobsey suggests that disabled people may be five times more likely
to experience severe abuse and multiple victimizations.
Why are so many disabled people
victims of hate crimes? Social, cultural, economic, physical and
psychological factors all contribute to a climate in which disabled
people become the victims of hate crimes. Such factors include:
· negative attitudes towards disability;
· the exclusion, isolation and poverty of disabled people and their
· lack of support, advocacy and safeguards;
· cultural acquiescence to violence;
· gender and power imbalances;
· abuse in state institutions;
· negative attitudes towards various groups of people (e.g. women,
children, gays, people from different ethnic backgrounds);
· the nature of the disability in question; and
· assumptions about the credibility of disabled victims.
Many disabled people are isolated
from mainstream society. Marginalization and disempowerment contribute
significantly to our victimization. Negative attitudes towards disability
have played a major role in making us more vulnerable to hate crimes.
These attitudes objectify, devalue and dehumanize us. When we are
dehumanized, it is easier to justify segregating us in institutions,
sterilizing us against our will, forcing us to work for unacceptably
low wages and committing crimes against us.As
long as we tolerate a climate which imposes hopelessness and discourages
personal autonomy for disabled citizens, hate crimes will continue
Some of us are especially vulnerable.
Disabled people who require assistance with washing, dressing, using
the toilet, and other intimate care activities, for example, can
be particularly susceptible to sexual abuse. People in these situations
can be conditioned more easily to be compliant with the wishes of
others and made to feel that they have little control over what
happens to their own bodies.
Traditionally, people in positions
of power have tended tended to dismiss or ignore complaints of assault
or abuse made by disabled people and to treat them as unreliable
witnesses. And this is a vicious circle, because a person's disability
often becomes worse after he or she is the target of a hate crime.
Hate Crimes and Sexual Orientation
Throughout most cultures we continue
to see widespread discrimination against gay men, lesbians, transgendered
and bisexual people. Members of these groups are also commonly the
victims of hate crimes. While some cases (such as the brutal murder
of Matthew Shepard or the bombing of gay nightclubs) receive national
media coverage, many more cases go unreported. Recent studies indicate
that for many gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people,
hate crimes are often a fact of life.
Although the overall number of
violent crimes has declined over recent years, the number of violent
hate crimes against gay people has increased dramatically. In a
1997 study published in the Journal
of Interpersonal Violence, G.H. Herek and other investigators
found that over 40% of the gay men, lesbians, transgender and bisexual
people questioned reported that they had been the victim of a hate
Many of these crimes are brutal
beyond belief. On March 21, 2000, for example, a 19-year-old gay
man was found dead in Queens, New York. His name was Steen Keith
Fenrich and he was African American. All that remained of his body
was a bleached skull, a foot, loose teeth, and a pair of trousers.
His murderers had written "Gay nigger number one" on his skull.
Both racism and homophobia had contributed to his death.
Physical brutality is not the
only kind of violence that characterizes hate crimes. Perpetrators
commonly scream anti-gay or racist slogans as they assault their
victims. These verbal taunts, together with physical assaults, often
result in emotional scarring which takes years to heal.
To date, little research has been
available on the numbers of gay disabled people who are the victims
of hate crimes. However, since statistics indicate that both disabled
people and gay people are more likely than others to experience
hate crimes, it could be reasonably assumed that gay disabled people
would experience very high levels of hate crime victimization.
Responding to Hate Crimes
Recently, some moves have been
made to broaden hate crimes legislation to include crimes motivated
on the basis of disability and sexual identity. In June, the US
Senate passed a landmark hate crimes billbut this is the second
time such a bill has been passed in the Senate, and the US House
has not yet brought up the matter for debate. So it is a welcome
sign to see moves to broaden legislation to include crimes committed
against people because of their sexual identity or disability.
Hate crimes merit harsh penalties
because of the emotional as well as bodily harm they inflict on
their victims. Penalty enhancement is an important part of hate
crimes legislation because it sends a message to offenders that
we will not tolerate hate crimes. But hate crimes legislation is
only one element in the struggle to create a safer environment for
those of us most at risk. We must adopt other strategies to reduce
the vulnerability of disabled and gay people.
Such strategies include a change
in public attitudes towards disability, an end to segregation, and
support for disabled people who are victims of hate crimes. Just
as important in the long-term struggle to reduce hate crimes is
building communities where diversity in sexual preference and identity
is encouraged, not merely tolerated.
©2000 Mark Sherry
sustained a traumatic brain injury and multiple other injuries in
1992. For some time he was in a "dangerously
ill" condition in Intensive Care. He has recovered and is now
pursuing a PhD in the field of disability at the University of Queensland
in Australia. He and his wife Jenny live in Brisbane.