Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Hate Crimes

Hate crimes against ethnic minorities declined in Florida in 2003 according to a study released by the state attorney general. That’s great – except they’re showing a steady increase in hate crimes against gays.

Hate crimes across Florida fell by 10 percent last year despite a big increase in attacks on gays, according to a report released Monday by state Attorney General Charlie Crist.

Total hate crimes reported by local law enforcement agencies dropped from 306 in 2002 to 275 in 2003, but 20 percent were based on sexual orientation, the report says.

Total hate crimes reported by local law enforcement agencies dropped from 306 in 2002 to 275 in 2003, but 20 percent were based on sexual orientation, the report says.

Heddy Peña, executive director of SAVE Dade, a human rights organization, said that in 2003, gays and lesbians made ”significant progress in the courts,” including a U.S. Supreme Court decision to decriminalize sexual behavior and a Massachussetts Supreme Court decision removing barriers to same-sex marriage.

These decisions, said Peña, could have created a backlash.

[…]

In a telephone interview from Tallahassee Monday, Crist said he was “in general encouraged” by the numbers, because “any time there’s less of a bad thing, it bodes well for the future.” On what he called “the positive side, hate crimes have been declining related to race, and religious-based crimes fell more than 17 percent . . . But hate crime exists, and the best way to stop it is to be aware of it.” Why sexual-orientation incidents increased “is an important question,” but one Crist said he could not answer. He rejected the notion that social tensions over gay rights could be related. “I don’t accept that different points of view on political issues lead to a hate crime. We don’t have to agree on everything in this country, but to take it to the next level and say it leads to criminal behavior is unacceptable.”

But Peña links the targeting of gays and lesbians to “rhetoric that increases hostility, and given the rhetoric during the 2004 elections, this category will increase next year.”

Crist, a Republican, won’t acknowledge any connection between the kind of anti-gay rights language used during the campaign by some conservative candidates and a social climate where violence toward gays is acceptable, because “that would point to his political party, and no one wants to be responsible for that,” she said. “But we have to face the fact that when you hear it in a rap song or during an election, it will have ramifications in the gay/lesbian/transgender community.”

There were more crimes motivated by sexual orientation in the past four years — 194 — than in the first eight years of hate-crime reporting combined: 193. Howard Simon, Florida executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the trend “startling . . . In some minds, restrictions on hate speech have become merged with laws that punish hate crimes. What we’re talking about here are actions that go beyond bigotry to crimes motivated by bigotry.” [Miami Herald]

That’s one of the prices we pay for freedom of speech – knowing that there are those who will exploit it to further their agenda, sometimes at the risk of harming others. The answer is not to restrict their speech, but to drown them out with our own message that hate and fearmongering is not a moral value.