Anti-gay hate crimes show reality of discrimination in Houston

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For gay Houston resident Darwing Benavides, a trip to a Sharpstown movie rental kiosk last May ended in a hate crime. Three men carjacked and robbed him. After identifying him as gay, they beat him and flashed a gun when he tried to fight back.

“They asked for money, but at the same time, they were saying, ‘He’s gay, he’s gay, he’s gay,’” Benavides says in an interview with Project Q Houston.

Benavides was among the half-dozen survivors who reported anti-LGBT hate crimes to the Houston Police Department in 2014. Activists say that the real number of hate crimes – locally and nationally – is much higher. The violence aimed at LGBT Houstonians will be the focus of a public forum on Saturday with top brass from the Houston Police Department.

Underreporting is a chronic problem for various reasons, including fear of being outed, mistrust of police and flaws in reporting systems. In fact, Project Q discovered that the FBI reported fewer hate crimes in Houston than HPD did.

Officials with the Montrose Center, the Branard Street facility that offers a variety of services to LGBT Houston, says it helped 42 anti-gay hate crime survivors in its last fiscal year. That’s a “pretty staggering difference” from HPD’s numbers, suggesting a hate-crime rate at least seven times higher, says Sally Huffer, the Center’s community projects specialist.

But even flawed, tip-of-the-iceberg counts are crucial to show the reality of discrimination and violence, Huffer says. That’s important when foes of such efforts as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance are “saying there is no [anti-LGBTQ] violence, or all crimes are hate crimes,” she says.

The six LGBT-related hate crime cases on HPD’s 2014 list include death threats, a trans man beaten on the street, and an attack in which the weapon was an ax, according to a review of incident reports by Project Q. And 2015 already has its shocking, high-profile hate crime: the Feb. 15 shooting, beating and robbery of John Gaspari (second photo) as the gay man walked home from Meteor. He says his attackers yelled, “Get the fag.” The murder of gay Houston man Juan Carlos Ramirez during a robbery in the parking lot of F Bar on March 12 prompted a Take Back Montrose rally.

Hate crime by the numbers


Getting a complete picture of any sort of crime is impossible. Some crimes will always go unreported, and no classification and reporting system is perfect. But hate crimes are especially prone to falling into those cracks in the system. It’s no surprise that the anti-LGBT hate crime stats compiled by police are much lower than those reported by such advocacy groups as the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

The FBI’s annual “Hate Crime Statistics” report is the authorities’ bible on the subject. The latest edition, covering 2013 data, was issued in December. Its nationwide total count of hate crimes based solely on sexual orientation or gender identity: 1,433. Sexual orientation was the number-two target of hate crimes nationwide, after race, at nearly 21 percent of the total.

The FBI report includes a breakdown of state and local data. Sexual orientation also was second only to race as a hate-crime target in Texas, with 44 cases reported statewide. As for Houston, the FBI says it reported 13 hate crimes of all kinds in 2013, with sexual orientation topping the list with 5 cases.

But there are reasons to question those numbers as too low. NCAVP challenges the FBI findings with its own annual report, based on LGBT or HIV-affected people who sought hate crime-related services from its member organizations, which include the Montrose Center. NCAVP’s hate-crime count for 2013 was much higher: 2,001. And that’s not even a nationwide number; NCAVP coalition members only cover particular regions in 13 states and Puerto Rico.

Of the cases handled by NCAVP members, the report says, only 45 percent of the victims had reported the crimes to the police. It further claims that of those cases investigated by the police, only 24 percent were properly classified as hate crimes, and in 32 percent of the cases, the victims faced “hostile attitudes” from police officers. Transgender people, people of color, and undocumented people were “disproportionately” targeted, it says.

The Montrose Center and the Matthew Shepard Foundation held a town-hall forum in February to discuss under-reporting of hate crimes. Huffer at the Montrose Center says there are several reasons that victims avoid filing a police report. In late March, a gay man was apparently attacked after leaving a gay bar in Montrose. But the victim wouldn't speak to media about the incident for fear of being outed and fired from a new job.

“One of the biggest reasons people tell us they don’t want to report … is, it becomes part of the public record,” she says. The investigation or media attention could mean outing a closeted person at work or home, or humiliating a trans person with mis-gendered stereotypes such as the “so-called men dressed as a woman.”

Fear of the police or other authorities is another issue, especially for seniors who remember years of hostile police officers and anti-gay bar raids, Huffer says. Trans people may also have fears of being mistreated or mis-gendered. The Montrose Center has seen cases of trans survivors being told, “Why don’t you man up?” or, “You deserve what you get,” Huffer says. Hate crimes can involve sexual assault, and seeking help from a hospital can be daunting for cis-male and trans survivors, she notes.

There’s also the nature of hate crimes, with their evil design to intimidate and silence. “Hate crimes are committed with the intent of affecting the entire community,” Huffer says.

Benavides, the survivor of the carjacking and beating, says that he didn't hesitate to call the police – his main concern was getting help for his injuries as he bled heavily across his face.

“I have no problem saying I’m gay,” Benavides says. “I believe the police are there to help people, no matter the [victim’s] race or anything.” He says Houston police treated him well.

Stats from advocacy groups can have issues, too. For example, the 42 survivors who sought help from the Montrose Center in fiscal 2014 may have included people seeking counseling for hate crimes that occurred much earlier, Huffer says. That complicates direct comparisons with police stats.

Meanwhile, police hate crime reports leave plenty of room for error. The FBI compiles national crime stats, including the hate-crime report, through the Uniform Crime Reports process. That semi-voluntary system attempts to have police departments across the U.S. to classify crimes the same way, then report the collected data to the FBI. Many departments report, but some don’t. Others provide full crime data, some don’t. And how a particular crime gets classified is largely up to the responding officer. For example, in Benavides’s case, a less sensitive department might have classified it only as a robbery and assault, not a hate crime as well.

In fact, Project Q found a discrepancy in the Houston hate crime stats that remains unexplained, but suggests a classification problem. HPD says it reported more hate crimes in 2013 than made it into the FBI report, including 7 anti-LGBTQ crimes (3 anti-gay, 3 anti-lesbian and 1 anti-transgender). It appears that some of those crimes disappeared from the record after HPD sent the stats to the state Department of Public Safety, which passes all local reports on to the FBI. One possible factor: DPS, unlike HPD, does not have a gender-identity category in its hate crimes classifications.

HPD also provided Project Q with its 2014 hate crime stats. That tally includes 5 anti-gay crimes and 1 anti-gender-conforming crime.

Survivors behind the numbers


Behind any hate-crime stat is a real person who suffered trauma. For victims’ advocacy organizations like the Montrose Center, the challenge is humanizing those numbers and reaching out to survivors to offer help.

“When something that traumatic happens to you, it lasts your whole life,” Huffer says.

Some of the stories that make it into the press underline the barbarian mindset that motivates hate crimes, or highlight some of the stat problems.

The FBI’s “Hate Crime Statistics” website includes a horrific Texas case from 2013 as an example. Brice Johnson of Springtown, near Fort Worth, lured a gay man via a meet-up website, then beat and kidnapped him. Last year, Johnson was convicted of a federal hate crime and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

An incident in August shows the mis-gendering issue that trans people may fear. That attack in Montrose, which received some press attention, involved a group of teens shouting slurs at a trans man and then attacking him. But the HPD report, obtained by Project Q, describes the victim as “female.” HPD Public Information Officer Victor Senties could not give a definite explanation for that, but said state law may require HPD to use whatever gender is on the victim’s state-issued ID.

The Montrose Center offers a wide range of services to LGBTQ victims of hate crimes and other violence, no matter when it happened or whether it was reported to police. One service is providing an advocate who will accompany the survivor anyplace they feel uncomfortable, such as hospitals, the police station or a court. The center also offers counseling and help accessing state crime-victim compensation funds. A 24-hour help hotline is available at 713-529-3211.

In the wake of the latest apparent hate crime and other street violence in Montrose, the center is continuing its work on how police handle LGBTQ victims, too. On Saturday, it hosts a town hall with HPD officials, including Chief Charles McClelland Jr., to air concerns.

Huffer says the center wants to “get the highest person on the [police] totem pole in our building” so he can “see the faces of people and hear their stories.”

“It’s that human face and experience that makes it more real to everybody,” she says.

[Top, bottom photo by Rob Martinez]


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