Anti-Gay Hate Crimes Stir National Fury

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Outrage has manifested in campus vigils, viral videos, and calls for awareness after a recent spate of anti-gay attacks and suicides by gay teens. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with Ty Cobb of the Human Rights Campaign, and journalist Kai Wright, who reports on sex, race and health.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

I'm Jacki Lyden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

It's an extraordinarily sad and difficult moment in this country's history for gays and lesbians and bisexual and transgendered people. Today, we're learning more about a brutal and methodical attack in the Bronx against three gay men who a group of men are alleged to have beaten simply for being gay.

It's an eerie reminder of the death, 12 years ago today, of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming man killed in a hate crime because he was gay. We'll speak with Matthew Shepard's mother, an activist now, in just a few minutes.

First, we want to bring in two people tracking closely the most recent events of anti-gay violence, bullying and harassment in the U.S. And let me warn our listeners right now that the language used in this segment of the program may not be appropriate for all ages.

Kai Wright is a journalist who reports on race, sexuality and health. He wrote the book "Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York." And also with me is Mr. Ty Cobb, the legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization. Thank you both so much for being with me today.

Mr. KAI WRIGHT (Journalist; Author, "Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York"): Thank you.

Mr. TY COBB (Legislative Counsel, Human Rights Campaign): Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: First, I'm afraid we have to reference the alleged circumstances of this awful crime in the Bronx, in which nine members of a group calling themselves the Latin Goonies are said to have taken part. All have been arrested.

They apparently tortured a teenage recruit in this group by sodomizing him with a plunger handle and then tortured his apparent partner, a 30-year-old man, as well as torturing another teen they suspected of being gay. So those are the outlines.

Let me ask you first, Ty Cobb, this is a particularly heinous incident. Is this becoming blood sport, attacking gay people?

Mr. COBB: I mean, this is particularly grotesque, you know, a particularly calculated crime. I think it's representative of the hate crimes we see across the nation. This one has definitely been picked up by the media, but I don't think there's a distinction between the crimes that occur in different areas and different regions of our country.

We see this stuff way too often, and it's unfortunate to hear every time one of these occurs.

LYDEN: Kai, there was an attack recently, even at the Stonewall Inn, the historic, landmark gay rights bar in Greenwich Village, where the Stonewall Riot, of course, occurred years ago.

Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah, I mean, the important thing is - Ty's exactly right, this is not uncommon. You know, this case in the Bronx, because of its almost ritualistic nature and the gang tie-in and all of that makes it something that is more likely to make it into the news.

But transgender women in particular are murdered in batches every year. The New York City Hate Crime Group has stats each year for it, but it is not uncommon for, you know, a dozen or more gay people to be killed in graphic situations each year because of their sexuality. And I think that's a story we too often forget.

LYDEN: Well, you say in batches. And I want you to perhaps support that in a minute, but I also want to ask Ty something about this, which is: How do we happen to know that this crime had even occurred?

Mr. COBB: This crime clearly illustrates a problem with our understanding of hate crimes, in the sense that neither of the three victims came forward to the police. Until one of the brothers of a victim reported a robbery, we never even knew these three hate crimes occurred.

So we are still grappling with understanding the extent of which individuals suffer hate crimes because we don't know, often, what those numbers are because there's a lack of reporting.

Individuals fear being outed, fear the reactions from their communities and fear being fired from their job, even, for admitting that they were attacked for being gay or bisexual or lesbian or transgender.

LYDEN: In fact, it was the police doing some research work on the brother of one of the victims who uncovered evidence of this other crime.

Mr. COBB: I believe the victims even were hesitant to say anything the first couple times they were interrogated. I think it even took several rounds of interrogation before they found the real truth about what happened in this situation.

LYDEN: Kai, you're speaking with us from New York. Let's take a look at the comments just the other day of New York Republican governor candidate Carl Paladino.

He told a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders in Williamsburg over the weekend that children shouldn't be, quote, "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is acceptable." Let's listen.

Mr. CARL PALADINO (Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, New York): Don't misquote me as wanting to hurt homosexual people in any way. That would be a dastardly lie. My approach is live and let live. I just think my children and your children would be much better off and much more successful getting married and raising a family. And I don't want them to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option. It isn't.

LYDEN: Now, Paladino, who is trailing Andrew Cuomo, what's the timing of this say, Kai?

Mr. WRIGHT: I mean, it's a remarkably cruel statement, first off. In the middle of a news cycle where we have seen at least five gay youth commit suicide in the last, I believe, what is it, five weeks, it's a remarkably insensitive and hateful remark.

I think what's important about this story, however, is that Mayor Michael Bloomberg then stood up and said: Here in New York, that's not how we think, that we're a community that's stronger because of our differences amongst each other and we respect and love one another.

And that's an important lesson for everybody because what is too often the case when we're talking about gay people is that the jerks have the microphone. And that if those of us who believe that it is inappropriate to torture someone because of their sexuality, whether it's physical violence or emotional torture, don't stand up and say it every day, every time we see it and challenge it, then the only people that have the microphone are the Paladinos of the world.

LYDEN: Once again, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we're talking about violence against and harassment of gay men and women in this country with journalist Kai Wright and activist Ty Cobb of the group Human Rights Campaign.

You're nodding your head as Kai is speaking. I mean, is there an amplification on the Internet of this sort of this or is it happening more?

Mr. COBB: Well, what I find interesting about the Paladino statement is it's not unique itself in the sense that we heard from several people this type of rhetoric in the last few weeks. And this all comes on the heels, as you said, of several teen suicides. And people question, what are causing these suicides?

And we have these statements by people like Paladino, and we have statements from the second in command in the Mormon Church saying that children need to be changed. And you have statements from an individual in the Michigan Attorney General's Office harassing over months the openly gay student body president of the University of Michigan on his blog.

These statements aren't unique, and this is what causes people to move forward and act upon these crimes of hate and also to bully and harass LGBT youth.

LYDEN: Let's turn to the case of Tyler Clementi. You mentioned harassment. Tyler is the Rutgers student who committed suicide after his roommate put out word of his encounter with another man over the Internet. And charges are pending as to whether or not that's going to be cited as a hate crime. But it is definitely a case that joins the spate of others here.

Kai, you had talked about an uptick, and I don't have the - what are you looking at here in terms of - you talked about transgendered women.

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, on hate crime, it's not an uptick, it's that - and I don't have the stats in front of me, but every year, going back - I've been looking at them since the mid-'90s, there are, you know, it is not uncommon for a dozen gay people to be killed because of their sexuality.

LYDEN: Are you talking about annually, or...

Mr. WRIGHT: Annually. And the common incidents are transgendered women who have been in a sexual encounter with a man who then regrets it and lashes out or other situations, where - they're called pick-up crimes, where someone has been involved with a gay person and then lashes out at them.

And it's a model in that they're typically extraordinarily graphic crimes that go way above and beyond what would just be a flash of anger.

LYDEN: Is there a solution here? Are we missing something? I mean, this is the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death, and one would think we would have pushed back and perhaps made more progress. What are we doing - not doing enough?

Mr. WRIGHT: I think something we need to recognize is that words have consequences. When people speak and speak in terms of hate or tell people that they shouldn't be happy with who they are, that's going to have consequences.

Whether that affects the child who decides to take his life, or it takes another individual to think that they can commit a crime because that person is gay, these words have consequences, and we're seeing that the consequences are severe.

Mr. COBB: And indeed, they're, you know, it's at every level of society. So we focus on it when we hear the GOP gubernatorial candidate say hateful things. But, you know, the number of times just in a high school in the course of a day that a gay youth hears the word gay used as a stand-in for everything that's wrong with the world - that's so gay, that's so queer - and that educators don't challenge it and that their friends don't challenge it and that parents don't challenge it - every time we let that happen, we build an environment for this kind of thing.

LYDEN: Where can gay young people turn in these times? I know the columnist Dan Savage started a Be Proud campaign, but where else?

Mr. WRIGHT: There's organizations like the Trevor Project, which is their -students can call into there. But there's also things that students and their parents or school districts can do.

Like one program we have at the Human Rights Campaign called Welcoming Schools, it's a program that elementary schools would implement to allow students to learn more about the idea of diversity and not specifically LGBT diversity but diversity of all types: religions, race, color, gender, just diversity in general and different family structures.

And we think by attacking this issue at a young level, it isn't allowed to fester as children get older.

Mr. COBB: And there's two places that are really important. One is that there's a growing number of schools with a gay-straight alliance, but the problem is that they are too often, they're found in middle-class schools but they are rarely found in places like the Bronx, and that's a problem.

And so the important stand-in is that whether there's an organization or not, what really is important is that everybody, whether you're gay or straight, if you don't believe that it's - that we should have a society where people are killing themselves because they feel so isolated, you have to constantly be a place where people can turn. You have to be a beacon. You have to stand up and say that this isn't right. And that creates space for people to go.

LYDEN: Well, thank you both very much for being with us today. Kai Wright is a journalist who reports on race, sexuality and health. He's the author of "Drifting Towards Love: Black, Brown, Gay and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York." And Ty Cobb is the legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization. Thank you both very much.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you.

Mr. COBB: Thank you.

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