Hate Crime, Hate Speech – What happened in Michigan on April 1st

Michael Tew

Since the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, progress on LGBT civil rights has been remarkable. Then, fighting for the right to simply be to now, marking increasing levels of success in the freedom to marry, the struggle for inclusion and equality marches on. That progress has not been without significant, and continuing, costs.

On April 1, 2014, the Ann Arbor News, Detroit Free Press, and Huffington Post reported on a Michigan Woman who was reportedly assaulted for marrying her same sex partner in the brief window of time marriage equality existed in Michigan. Having been recognized from an appearance on television, three men verbally and physically attacked her. We should hope that the investigation into this apparent hate crime is conducted honestly and with dignity.

This entry though is not about the actual incident. It is about the online comments that followed these reports. Though I know we shouldn’t read the comments from the crazies, I made the mistake of doing so and it proved sadly revealing.

The post-Stonewall Gay Liberation movement achieved tremendous visibility in the early 1970’s. My students remark that it must have been a fantastic time to be in the movement. To some extent, they are right. But that visibility was swiftly followed by fierce backlash. And that has been the pattern that persists to the present day. Jeff Nishball wrote, in the May 2013 issue of The Good Man Project, “we still seem to be in a constant state of one step forward, two steps back. There have been 22 hate crime attacks in New York since January, compared to thirteen during the same period last year.” That rise in violence was immediately subsequent to New York’s affirmation of marriage equality.

Back to the internet crazies. I won’t replicate the comments made regarding the beating of the newly, happily married woman in Washtenaw County. You can easily find them yourself by looking up any of the reports. The following is a thematic summary: she’s lying to get people on the side of gay marriage; who cares gays should get out and go back in the closet; what did the gays expect; gays are destroying America; Fred Phelps was right. That captures the tone. Of course, not all of the posts took that bent but the high frequency of those that did use this kind of vitriol was jarring.

They are crazies, right? Can’t we move on and just let the haters hate? No.

J.L. Lemke wrote in a 1995 special issue of Columbia University’s 21stC, “A little violence goes a long way when it takes on a meaning, when people begin to predict what will be punished. That meaning enables violence to function as a means of control. No social order could maintain itself solely by the physical effects of violence. Violence is always also a warning, a threat of the possibility of more violence.” The observation was almost prophecy for what happened after President Obama refused to defend DOMA in court. In May of 2012, Think Progress reported on several right-wing pastors in different states advocating physical violence toward gay people and generally disparaging the LGBT community. ” –North Carolina Pastor argues for a gay concentration camp. – Kansas Pastor says gays should be put to death. – Maryland Pastor says his ‘flesh’ likes the idea of killing gays.” Jamie Hagen of the Rolling Stone quoted Michelle Bachmann, R-Minnesota (“Christians must engage in “spiritual warfare” to combat same-sex marriage”) and Trent Franks, R-Arizona (Marriage equality is “a threat to the nation’s survival in the long run”) as issuing calls to arms after the death of DOMA. (June 2013). Progress and backlash.

Why does this matter? All of these people are “outside” the mainstream trend toward LGBT Civil Rights. While that may be generally accepted, these public figures, like those private figures sharing poisonous bigotry in response to a Michigan hate crime, lay a breeding ground for physical violence and for LGBT loss of personal dignity.

“Defamation of a minority group, through hate speech, undermines a public good: the basic assurance of inclusion in society for all members . A social environment polluted by anti-gay leaflets, Nazi banners, and burning crosses sends an implicit message to the targets of such hatred: your security is uncertain and you can expect to face humiliation and discrimination when you leave your home.”(Jeremy Waldron, The Harm in Hate Speech, 2012)

When I read those comments in response to a crime that saddened and troubled me, I had the same physical and emotional reaction as I did when I was a young, newly out gay man. Anger, fear, humiliation. These were the feelings I faced 30 years ago when I came out to a world far less supportive and accepting than we believe it to be today. These were the feelings I had when I read what people in my own Michigan community wrote – the way they responded to another citizen’s victimization.

Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch asserts, “visibility breeds violence, and there is a pressing need for new support and protection.”(Human Rights Watch, 2009) “Winning” marriage is not an end game. It is tremendously important progress. It is a demonstration of value and inclusion. There is, however, much more work to do for human rights, equality, and social justice.

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About Equality Research Center

The mission of the Equality Research Center is to promote, support, and disseminate research focused on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender equality and human rights. The Center is dedicated to the advancement of Equality by connecting academic, evidence based research to community action, public policy, and curricular innovation.
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