By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
DETROIT – Living in Michigan is becoming less safe for lesbians, gays, and people of color, according to hate crimes statistics released by the FBI in 2003 and 2004. The 2004 figures show a seventy-eight percent rise in reported hate crimes against gays and lesbians in one year. During that same time, hate crimes against people of color rose by twenty-eight percent. Michigan ranked third in the nation for hate crimes, and second in the nation for hate crimes against lesbians and gays.
“We know in Michigan that most law enforcement agencies don’t even have a place in their paperwork to indicate an anti-gay hate crime,” said Triangle Foundation Executive Director Jeffrey Montgomery. In addition, the City of Detroit did not report hate crimes statistics to the FBI, nor does the FBI collect statistics on hate crimes against transgender individuals. These lapses, said Montgomery, means the FBI report, “doesn’t have anything close to a realistic picture,” of the scope of anti-gay hate crimes in Michigan.
Ninety-three hate crimes against LGBTs were reported to Triangle in 2004, most of them within the metro Detroit area, Montgomery said. According to the FBI, there were forty-one reported anti-gay hate crimes in 2003 and seventy-three in 2004. During that same time period, hate crimes against people of color rose from 286 to 366.
Montgomery said that even the Triangle report was probably highly inaccurate. “Even those of us [agencies working with victims of anti-LGBT hate crimes] who are doing a very good job of capturing reports about [victims] are getting only about thirty percent,” of the actual crimes committed, he said.
Montgomery said that the rise in anti-gay hate crimes in the FBI report could be a sign that more local law enforcement agencies are contributing data. According to Montgomery, the federal government does not fund the collection of hate crimes data, leaving local jurisdictions little incentive to do so.
“We show consistent rises in our figures over the years, but we also disclaim very clearly that it doesn’t necessarily mean that crimes against gay people are increasing – it may mean that our efforts are paying off with more people reporting what’s actually going on,” he said.
On the other hand, “To the extent that crimes are increasing, it should not surprise anyone,” Montgomery said, and explained that there has been a historical correlation against anti-gay ballot measures and an increase of hate crimes against gay and lesbian individuals.
Explaining that any real increase in hate crimes against lesbians and gays in Michigan may be tied to the Proposal 2 campaign, Montgomery said, “Unfortunately the only way that the hard right wing can gain success in those kinds of campaigns is to say the worst, most harmful, most virulently anti-gay rhetoric they can come up with. And we know that there is a direct connection between that kind of rhetoric coming from so-called religious leaders and right-wing political hacks and people feeling empowered to do violence to people they think are LGBT.”
As for the increase in crimes against people of color, Montgomery said he sees a connection.
“The administration in power in this country, both at the executive level and in Congress, is basically racist, homophobic and classist. The kind of leadership that they choose to provide … reflects those biases and encourages people to find scapegoats and enemies so they won’t notice the horrible leadership that they are getting.”
Leaders in Detroit’s black LGBT community agreed with Montgomery.
“I think that one of the things that you found is that there’s this hatred message that’s coming through from the far right,” said HRC of Michigan Board Member Michelle Brown. “What you’re finding is that even though it’s coming from a religious base it’s a message of intolerance. They’re supporting the anti-affirmative action initiative, they’re against the fight for gay rights, so who do those point at?”
“What they’re saying is, ‘If you’re not just like us we can’t tolerate you and so it’s okay to beat, kill, hurt people who are different.’ It’s a very ‘them’ and ‘us’ society that they’re pushing,” she added.
“With the rhetoric around these elections, and politicians using us as scapegoats, everyone else focuses on us, too,” said Johnny Jenkins, co-founder and director of the Detroit Black Pride Society. “And those politicians don’t realize that their rhetoric affects our quality of life,”
Jenkins said that he thinks part of the reason for the rise of anti-gay hate crimes in Michigan in 2004 “is all that fallout from Proposal 2.”
“I think that the religious right – or the religious wrong, as I like to call them – actually have helped to contribute to this negative climate for people of color and for gay and lesbian people by being so opposed to gay civil rights such as marriage, second parent adoptions, the right to employment without discrimination,” said Kofi Adoma, founder and president of Karibu House, “and certainly their voice is out there and it’s affecting a lot of people. And it creates an atmosphere in which people feel it’s okay to hate somebody.”
Adoma and Jenkins agreed that social conservatism has fueled anti-gay hatred in the black community as well.
“I know even within people of color communities the same kind of conservatism is going on,” Adoma said. “You’ve got people like Keith Butler running for Senate, saying it’s okay to vote for [George W.] Bush and to discriminate against gay and lesbian people. When you’ve got people like that, people are going to listen. And people are buying into it, unfortunately.”
“We know that homophobia is really intense in the black community, and when you don’t have those open discussions, there’s so much of a deep divide where people don’t understand the effects of homophobia,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins added that LGBT community members of all races need to be more persistent about reporting hate crimes when they happen.
“I know for a fact that my community doesn’t report enough to Triangle,” Jenkins said. “It’s getting worse the worse the economy is, and it’s not going to get any better. It needs to become a higher priority within the black LGBT community as well as the community overall. [We] need to encourage people to make a report to Triangle so we can start documenting this stuff.”