It must be a confusing time for many gay Americans. On the one hand, we read headlines from LGBT advocacy organizations like the Human Rights Campaign saying “New FBI Statistics Show Alarming Increase in Number of Reported Hate Crimes.” On the other we see headlines championing a new wave of LGBT political leaders taking office, such as the Washington Post’s “A banner year for LGBT candidates got even stronger with Kyrsten Sinema’s Senate win.”
President Trump nominated an openly gay and conservative lawyer, Patrick Bumatay, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, just as the HRC’s Chad Griffin declares, “A banner year for the LGBTQ community made clear that the days of attacking LGBTQ people for political gain are over, and the American people will not stand for lawmakers who try to drum up votes by trafficking in hate.”
While the majority, if not all, of legal and social issues facing gay Americans have been settled in our favor, LGBT media seem fixated on the narrowing list of negative experiences still affecting us. In particular, this includes raising alarm over a claimed rise in hate crimes.
In support of a new HRC initiative titled United Against Hate, Griffin tweeted, “New statistics reveal a disturbing increase in reported hate crimes & ongoing epidemic of anti-trans violence. Lawmakers must act with urgency to address this crisis and stand united against those who embolden hate through their words, actions, or silence.”
The report says there has been a 17 percent increase in hate crimes from 2016 to 2017. Citing the 20th anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard, the HRC stated, “These latest FBI hate crime statistics show that even decades after his brutal murder, LGBTQ people and other minorities are still facing alarming levels of hate-fueled violence.”
What we see, however, is actually a fairly steady reporting rate with a downward trend over the last decade. The FBI Hate Crimes report began separating “gender identity,” which includes transgender individuals, in 2013. After a drop that year, there has been a rise in incidents since then.
The HRC relies on a common assumption in discussing hate crimes and violence by insisting the reporting only shows a fraction of the real-world incidents. It states, “87 percent of the agencies that participated in the program reported no hate crimes in their jurisdiction, suggesting that agencies still face challenges in identifying and reporting hate crimes.” The organization also argues that while the number of reporting agencies increased in 2017, since hate crime reporting is voluntary, the numbers do not reflect reality.
The difficulty here is, of course, that since the numbers have adjusted only slightly over the years, a lack of reporting does not necessarily indicate unreported crimes. It is important to note that the definition of “hate crime” varies state to state and the categories of this crime can include persons, property, or society.
Of the total number of hate crimes affecting persons (57.6 percent) in 2017 in all categories, 44.9 percent involved “intimidation,” while 34.3 percent were “simple assault.” Simple assault is defined as “the attempt to cause serious physical harm to another individual. It also refers to causing the individual to be in fear or apprehension of an imminent battery. The crime does not involve physical contact with the victim.” Property crimes, which involved 39.7 percent of all hate crimes, were largely vandalism or destruction (73.7 percent).
Certainly, these types of crimes are destructive and traumatic for the victims, but proportion matters as well. It is clear that in the vast majority of these cases no person is physically injured.
Also, many incidents of vandalism turn out to be hoaxes. In November it was found that four out of five racist notes reported on Drake University’s campus in Iowa were committed by the student reporting them, and the fifth was considered a copycat.
Some claims of violence are also found to be hoaxes. In Portland, Oregon the family of a gay 22-year-old claimed he was the victim of a hate crime in which he was thrown from a moving train, resulting in severe injury and coma. An investigation, which included speaking with 300 people including passengers who had interacted with him, concluded, “There is nothing to suggest that he was involuntarily removed from the train. There is nothing to suggest criminal intent in this investigation.”
Hate crimes are also subjective. A case in Long Island in which a 21-year-old man stole LGBT flags from a church on multiple occasions is classified as a “hate crime.”
In July, it was found that in Washington DC nearly half of LGBT hate crimes prosecuted by the district end up being dismissed or dropped. Hate crime convictions are much smaller than reports, as well. In Texas in 2017, “[f]rom 2010 through 2015, there were 981 cases reported to police in Texas as potential hate crimes. ProPublica examined the records kept by the Texas Judicial Branch and confirmed just five hate crime convictions.”
The report goes on to say, “Interviews with law enforcement make clear that some number of the reports wind up dismissed because of too little evidence – or evidence that suggests that the alleged crimes didn’t happen at all. Another considerable number are cases that fail to produce an arrest and thus go unsolved.” Most reported hate crimes, per the interviews, never identify a suspect.
It is also important to remember that reports of transgender murders, often cited as a growing epidemic, often reflect murders of transgender individuals but without a biased motivation. It should also be noted that as LGBT breaks down into smaller and smaller categories with more broad definitions of “hate crime,” this will result in increases at smaller levels even if the overall numbers do not reflect a total trend. So will adding categories, as the FBI did in 2013 with gender identity.
The political left and right view this situation differently. From the left’s perspective, the lack of conviction, evidence, and reporting indicates a systematic problem, reflecting prejudice, ignorance, or both. The right views this all as proof the left is exaggerating the problem. The stream of highly publicized incidents that turn out to be hoaxes and the lack of common experience reflecting the claims of an epidemic of violent hate reinforces this view. Those who are targeted with violence or hatred based on their personal characteristics are significantly harmed by any false claims, since this increases the perception that claims of a hate crime are likely to be a hoax.
One major difficulty in understanding hate crime is that it is not common to witness bias crimes or even hatred targeting a specific protected group. While this does not diminish genuine hate crimes, it does affect their relevancy to public discourse.
The truth is that, outside of rare outliers, hate crimes in general, and LGBT hate crimes in particular, are trending downward over time. While the LGBT media focuses on year by year changes, depending on their current political narrative, it must be viewed as a larger picture of society. Our country is generally growing safer over time, with fluctuations year by year.
As a society we must address violence and hatred, but we do not need to perpetuate fear and paranoia in groups when it is not necessary, especially for politics. We LGBT people live in a remarkably safe and accepting society that takes violence and hatred towards us extremely seriously. It is our obligation to ensure that dedication to defeating this hatred is honored with truth and relevance.
We should be careful not to exaggerate and exploit fear and our fellow Americans’ good intentions. Hate crimes are rare, and LGBT hate crimes are trending downward over time. That is a great thing we should be celebrating as a culture. It will continue to get better if we can focus on fighting real hated and violence, rather than perpetuating political narratives.