Brutal Sexual Assault Renews Focus On Hate Crimes

A community is still recovering after last month's brutal gang rape of a lesbian woman in Richmond, Calif. LaDoris Cordell, a human rights activist and retired judge; Rhonda James, of Community Violence Solutions, and Jenelle Forde, an openly gay elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C., discuss hate crimes and how to stop them.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, my thoughts about why those dancing penguins in the film "Happy Feet" maybe shouldn't be quite so happy. It's my Can I Just Tell You commentary, and it's in just a few minutes.

But first, it's time for our Behind Closed Doors conversation where we talk about things often kept hidden. Today, we're talking about violence directed at gays and lesbians and other folk because of their sexual orientation. Last month, a woman was walking from her car to her apartment in Richmond, California. She was gang-raped by four males in her car, driven to another location and then raped again, where they left her naked and battered in an apartment complex. Now this crime is hideous another any circumstances, but what has made this incident stand out for many is that the woman seems to have been targeted because she displayed a rainbow symbol, an emblem of gay pride on her car, and throughout the attack, her alleged assailants - two men and two teens - taunted her with anti-gay slurs.

According to the FBI's 2008 hate crimes report, assaults against gays and lesbians have increased by nearly six percent over the previous year despite a one percent drop in overall hate crimes.

Here to talk more about this are Rhonda James. She's executive director of Community Violence Solutions. It's an organization dedicated to ending sexual assault. Jenelle Forde is a fitness educator at a public elementary school in Washington, D.C. And LaDoris Cordell is a retired judge and a human and civil rights activist. And I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. RHONDA JAMES (Executive Director, Community Violence Solutions): Thank you.

Judge LADORIS CORDELL (Retired Judge; Human and Civil Rights Activist): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Rhonda, I wanted to start with you since you are the most familiar with the case. I think your organization has actually started a fund for the victim, her partner and an eight-year-old child's relocation. And of course, we understand the confidentiality issues, but I wanted to ask you just what has been some of the community reaction to this story, to this situation?

Ms. JAMES: The support from the community has been overwhelming. It's surpassed any I've ever seen. Basically, the GLBQT community has been outraged and absolutely mobilized and I think pretty much primed by the most recent legislative action that has happened in California. And I must say, the community at large, identifying themselves as allies of GLBQT folks, have just rallied and said this cannot happen in our community. It's not OK.

MARTIN: Let's talk to Judge Cordell. Judge, one of the reasons we called you is that you were a family court judge for many years and worked with people from all different backgrounds who have been victimized by violence, people who have been perpetrators of violence. And I think one of things that has struck people about this case is number one, these are all people of color involved. Two, the fact that you had two teenagers involved. And I think a lot of people feel that of all people who would not be motivated by anti-gay bias that people think - do you know what I'm saying? So I would just wanted to get your...

Judge CORDELL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Your seat-of-the-pants reaction to this situation.

Judge CORDELL: Sure. Well, you know, certainly the incident in Richmond, it was the most egregious form of homophobia. There are many other acts of homophobia that are committed all the time. Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, is homophobia. When the ministers get up in churches, and I talk specifically about - I'm speaking about black churches - and give sermons and talk about how we hate the sin but the love the sinner when they're talking about gays and lesbian, they're all forms of homophobia and gay bashing. What is most surprising to me is that...

MARTIN: And you're a woman of color, too, just to establish that.

Ms. JAMES: Absolutely. Yes, I am African-American. I am African-American. And I guess what strikes me and what is the most - been hardest to deal with is why African-Americans, specifically, and generally people of color still in the main do not see that the struggle for gay rights is a civil rights struggle. They do not see it that way. And it is a paradox that individuals of color who have been the most subjected to bigotry and hatred and discrimination in this country are not in the forefront of the fight for the rights of gays and lesbians and the gay rights movement.

MARTIN: Can I just - Jenelle, I wanted to bring you into the conversation. And one of the reasons that we wanted to visit with you is that you're about the age of a couple of the perpetrators. Actually, you - or the alleged perpetrators, that has to be said. These four people have been arrested but they haven't - and they've been charged but they have not gone through a trial. But you're a young woman in your 20s.

Ms. FORDE: Yes.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask how a story like this makes you feel. Does it make you feel afraid?

Ms. FORDE: It makes me feel very, very afraid, especially since I have experienced in my own personal life similar negative reactions but to surely to a lesser magnitude than what our dear friends experienced. It makes me very frightened because homophobia, like racism, like sexism, it's grounded on irrationalism. And to think that we are in the 21st century and these crimes are committed by young people whom, yes, we do presume are very progressive thinkers, it is quite scary.

MARTIN: When you say you've experienced similar things, what are you talking about?

Ms. FORDE: Well, just recently, I know I was on the subway here in Washington, D.C., and a group of young African-American men, they were yelling derogatory statements toward me. I am an African-American woman, and in appearance, I have very short hair but I think it's still quite easy to tell that I am female and these...

MARTIN: I think that's true.

Ms. FORDE: These men, who they apparently made the assumption that I was lesbian and that the company that I had was my partner, and they took great offense to that. They looked at me and judged me to be lesbian and decided to shpeil(ph) very negative, hurtful statements toward me.

MARTIN: Does this happen often?

Ms. FORDE: Yes.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with LaDoris Cordell, Jenelle Forde and Rhonda Jones about an assault on a woman in Richmond, California that has sparked intense discussions about violence directed at gays and lesbians and particularly people of color.

You know, we've had a lot of hot-button conversations, particularly in the wake of Prop 8 about the role that race plays with these kinds of attitudes, and so - Judge Cordell, I wanted to ask you. As person, you've been out for quite a long time. Does story like this make you feel more vulnerable and how do you see race playing a role in this?

And I want to mention that we are not disclosing the alleged victim's identity, but we do believe that she's a woman color and we do know that the alleged perpetrators are all men of color. So Judge Cordell, what's your take on that?

Judge CORDELL: Those of us who are gay and lesbian are, you know, we're involved in a common struggle, and when I say common, it's really a struggle against bigotry and hatred. And it is that effort that is, you know, it's just not really realized by particularly communities of color to see this as a common struggle, yet not as another step. Yet there have been civil rights leaders - Congressman John Lewis, Coretta Scott King - who have spoken out quite strongly about the need to see this struggle as just an extension of the struggle that those of us fought and are still fighting for racial equality.

I think one of the nicest lines or strongest lines of Congressman John Lewis - he's the congressman from Georgia - he said, I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

MARTIN: Rhonda, when you're working with survivors, and the area where you work is very diverse, how do they sort out some of these questions of race and survivorship and - the reason I'm asking is that one of the questions I had is whether victims of color feel disappeared in some way or do they feel that perhaps the sense of fear about of being perceived as disloyal to the black community or something or the Latino community if they speak of their fear, hurt and pain?

Ms. JAMES: I think it is harder, in my experience, for a person of color to talk about another person of color targeting him or her because it's another way to betray your group, which is already so targeted.

MARTIN: The other thing I'm curious about, and I don't - I'm not big in these big media-bashing experiences just because I think it's not that productive, but I am also curious about the contrast between the attention that this case has gotten and that of the young man in Oakland who was killed in an incident with the police, and that has been a huge national story. Now, obviously, thankfully, this woman survived, but this is a very hideous case. It seems like this random act of a woman just being kidnapped off the street because of a sticker on her car and because assumptions were made about her orientation and it just - and I'm just curious, Rhonda, if you have any feelings or thoughts about the relative attention this matter has received? I know that you're saying she had a huge outpouring of support locally, but do you have thoughts about that?

Ms. JAMES: I do have lots of thoughts and observations about it. What you have there is a person who is a law enforcement person who on tape looks to have shot and killed...

MARTIN: An unarmed person. I see what you're saying, yes, so there is - the fact that there is a video is what makes it very...

Ms. JAMES: Different power dynamics going on.

Judge CORDELL: But you know, I do kind of...

MARTIN: Judge Cordell?

Former Judge CORDELL: Yeah, there's been a huge, huge national outcry about Oscar Grant's death, and justifiably so. What I've noticed, however, is there has not been that huge outcry in the wake of this crime against this woman in Richmond. And I really do believe that the lack of outrage, the lack of an outcry are as expansive a one as in the Grant case because it's just - this is just not perceived - one, because she's a woman, two, because she's gay - these two classes tend to be trivialized.

MARTIN: Rhonda, I want you to finish your thought.

Ms. JAMES: Well, actually, there was quite an outcry. There were at least two public vigils and marches that happened. The folks who came out at these vigils by and large were out lesbians and out gay men and by and large out lesbian women of color. And we really didn't see a huge outpouring of community folks who were not necessarily living out or who were identified straight folks who actually lived in Richmond.

MARTIN: Jenelle, what kinds of conversations would you like to have proceed as a result of this terrible situation happening to this person, which is in the courts as we speak?

Ms. FORDE: Well, first of all, I think I would like for many of us to do away with the misconceived notion that because people of color have a history of oppression then we should naturally be relievers or curers of other people's pain. I think that expectation of African-Americans in particular or any people of color is simply misguided. And secondly, too, that because we are in the 21st century and because young people of this generation, my generation, are progressive thinkers that naturally we will act when needed to.

I think it's just not enough to be a progressive thinker but it also takes courage. I know when I experienced what I shared earlier, on the subway, not too many people said anything at all, and it was something that was ignored, even though I'm sure in Washington, D.C. most people would object to such statements that I heard. But we just don't have the courage that it takes to stand up and go to vigils and to really say that we must put an end to such irrationalism and cruelty in our society.

MARTIN: It would have been nice if perhaps another man of color had gone to those guys and said, stop it, stop it.

Ms. FORDE: Absolutely, absolutely.

MARTIN: Judge Cordell, what conversations would you like to see happening? And I'm going to give you a final word.

Judge CORDELL: Homophobia, I think, is bolstered by religion. And I really would like to see sermons preached about homophobia, about how it is wrong. I would like to see that happen because we are the most disappeared when we are sitting in churches where people are giving sermons and talking about how sinful gays and lesbians are and basing it on what they believe and I believe is a misguided interpretation of the scriptures. So I would like to see the conversation be generated from the pulpit about this issue.

MARTIN: LaDoris Cordell is a retired judge and human and civil rights activist. She joined us from Stanford University in Palo Alto. We were also joined by Rhonda James, executive director of Community Violence Solutions. It's an organization dedicated to fighting sexual assault in Richmond, California. She was kind enough to join on the phone from Sacramento. And we were also joined by Jenelle Forde. She's a fitness educator at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. She was here with me in the studio. I thank you all so much, ladies, for joining us.

Former Judge CORDELL: Thank you.

Ms. FORDE: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. JAMES: Thank you for your interest in the case.

MARTIN: Remember, at Tell Me More, the conversation never ends. We mentioned the FBI's 2008 hate crimes report that says that assaults against gays and lesbians increased by nearly 6 percent over the prior year. We'd like to ask you why you think this might be. Do you agree with some of our guests that the political conversations around issues like Prop 8 contribute to an atmosphere of hostility or not or is that just an excuse? Do you think there is anything community leaders can do to discourage these kinds of attacks?

To tell us more and to compare notes with what other listeners are saying, please go to our Web site, the Tell Me More page at npr.org. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522, and please remember to tell us your name and where you're from.

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