When Words Have Consequences
Hate Crimes and the Same-Sex Marriage Debate
January 30, 2006
The election year of 2004 saw a rise in heated rhetoric concerning same-sex marriage. That year saw the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, while in San Francisco more than 4,000 gay couples rushed city hall to solemnize their relationships in a joyous outpouring of emotions. These sudden developments startled many opponents, who immediately swung into action. Before the year was out, thirteen states voted to ban same-sex marriage in their constitutions,1 while President Bush backed a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution to do the same nationwide. Meanwhile, some gay-rights advocates braced themselves for a feared backlash, not only at the ballot box but on the streets across America. Many predicted a rise in hate crimes targeted against gay men and women.
As it turns out, the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics for 20042 provides a somewhat mixed picture. Overall, hate crime reports were up only 2% from the year before, (7,649 hate crime incidents3 for 2004, up from 7,490 for 2003), but that increase needs to be looked at in terms of the number of state and local law enforcement agencies which participated in the hate crimes reporting system.
Reporting hate crimes to the FBI is not mandatory and not all law enforcement agencies participate in the program. Fortunately, the number of reporting agencies (and the size of the population they have jurisdiction over) continues to improve each year. In 2003, 11,909 law agencies with jurisdiction over 82.8% of the American population participated in the reporting program. Last year, with 12,711 agencies participating, that coverage rose to 86.6% of the American population. Because of this increased participation, we can infer a very slight decrease of about 3% in reported hate crimes overall.
Why Be Skeptical of the FBI’s Statistics?
To learn more about some of the problems with the FBI’s hate crime statistics, see Federal Hate Crime Statistics: Why The Numbers Don’t Add Up.
And for gays and lesbians overall, the picture looks even better. Reports of hate crime incidents based on sexual orientation fell slightly in 2004 to 1,198, from 1,234 the year before. When adjusted for the increase in population covered by these statistics, it appears to be a decrease of just under 8%. If these statistics are to be believed – and there is ample reason to be skeptical – then the news would be very good indeed.
But the news isn’t so rosy everywhere. Many of the states which voted to ban same-sex marriage in their constitutions witnessed a significant rise in belligerent anti-gay rhetoric during those campaigns. Some of the rhetoric was quite disturbing, tying the idea of marriage equality to the destruction of the family, bestiality, pedophilia, and other societal ills:
Legalization of same-sex marriage in one state is just part of a larger plan by which activists hope to achieve complete normalization of homosexuality, destruction of the traditional family, and abolition of religious freedom. — Ohio Campaign to Protect Marriage4
Make no mistake, the force behind the upheaval has been generated by those who want to change sexual norms for their own benefit again, this time targeting marriage, the foundation of society, with a full, in-your-face assault. If they are successful, a new and heavier path of destruction and misery will result. — The Family Foundation of Kentucky5
Gays and lesbians have been front and center in these thirteen states, and the FBI’s hate crime statistics, as incomplete as they may be, bear this out.
There were 150 hate crimes incidents based on sexual orientation for these thirteen states in 2003, before ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage were on the radar. But in 2004 when voters were asked to approve these bans, this figure rose to 220 – a 47% increase. This rise far outstrips the increase in the covered population for these thirteen states (38.2 million for 2003 to 43.4 million for 2004, an increase of only 14%). Even if you account for the increase in the population covered by these statistics, it still amounts to an alarming 31% increase in reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation in these states.
These Numbers Don’t Tell The Full Story
Even though Ohio reported a 66% increase in hate crimes against gays and lesbians, it’s clear that some hate crimes went unreported to the FBI. This leaves room to suspect that the actual rise in hate crimes may be even worse, especially when Daniel Fetty’s Murder Doesn’t Count.
For some of these states, this increase is especially worrisome. Ohio went from 32 hate crime incidents based on sexual orientation in 2003 to 57 incidents in 2004. That’s equivalent to a 66% increase after adjusting for differences in population coverage. Michigan went from 41 incidents in 2003 to 73 in 2004 (for an adjusted 72% increase). Missouri went from 5 to 11 (an adjusted 82% increase). And Georgia – where only seven law enforcement agencies participated covering a scant 18% of that state’s population – saw the number of hate crime incidents based on sexual orientation increase from 3 incidents in 2003 to 12 in 2004 – despite a very slight decrease in the population covered by Georgia’s participating law enforcement agencies.7 One can only guess how many incidents went unnoticed among Georgia’s remaining 82% of the population.
I’ve never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. And I’m going to be blunt and plain: If one ever looks at me like that, I’m going to kill him and tell God he died.” – Jimmy Swaggart, Sept 12, 2004.8
Very few opponents of same-sex marriage condone acts of violence against anyone, including gays and lesbians. Jimmy Swaggart later offered an apology of sorts, saying “If it’s an insult, I certainly didn’t think it was, but if they are offended, then I certainly offer an apology.” But Rev. Swaggart seems to have missed the point. It was very insulting, but to the point, it was threatening. And it appears that many others were willing to take up that same message and carry it out.
When opponents equate ordinary gays and lesbians with child molesters, as carriers of dangerous diseases, and as a threat to the very fabric of society, they must understand that their incendiary remarks have consequences. Jimmy Swaggart’s comments made during a church service, where they were met with laughter and applause from people who look to him for moral guidance. Perhaps everyone in that audience was in on the joke and didn’t take his words seriously. But sentiments like these certainly poison the atmosphere by the mere appearance of condoning someone to do something.
When opponents describe gays and lesbians as not fully deserving of the constitution and the law, it should not come as any surprise when some who hear their words act on that belief. After all, words have consequences, fighting words especially. And the FBI’s statistics, as incomplete as they are, clearly bear this out.
1. The thirteen states where voters were asked to approve constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage were: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah.
2. Federal Bureau of Investigations. Hate Crime Statistics, 2004. (Washington: US Department of Justice, November, 2005). Available online at http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/hc2004/openpage.htm.
3. A hate crime incident is defined as the occurrence of one or more crime against one or more victims in a single incident. A single incident can consist of more than one crime, victim, or perpetrator. In 2004, there were a total of 7,649 hate crime incidents, consisting of 9,035 offenses against 9,528 victims perpetrated by 7,145 known offenders.
4. Ohio Campaign To Protect Marriage. “Marriage is under attack, here in Ohio, as it is across the nation.” Web page (2004) http://www.ohiomarriage.com/learnmore.shtml (accessed November 22, 2005).
5. The Family Foundation of Kentucky. “The Marriage Maelstrom (Vote YES!)” Web page (November 2004) http://www.tffky.org/articles/2004/200411g.html (accessed November 22, 2005).
6. Traditional Values Coalition. “Homosexual movement and pedophilia.” Web page (undated) http://traditionalvalues.org/homosexual_movement_and_pedophilia/ (accessed November 21, 2005).
7. In 2003, participating Georgia law enforcement agencies were: the cities of Atlanta and Watkinsville; counties of Barrow, Dade, DeKalb, and Newton; and the police department of the University of Georgia. Total population covered by these agencies: 1,617,487.
In 2004, participating Georgia law enforcement agencies were: the cities of Atlanta, Norcross, and Quitman; DeKalb County; and the police departments of the University of Georgia, Georgia Southern University, and Berry College. Total population covered by these agencies: 1,576,482.
8. “Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart apologizes after remark about ‘killing’ gay men.” Associated Press (September 22, 2004). Available online at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/news/archive/2004/09/22/national1416EDT0631.DTL.