Mark Sherry


Since 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 gender.

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 families;
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 to flourish.

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 crime.

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 bill—but 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


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.