By Tasnia Ahmed
In a society where unjust double standards about victimization exist, white, straight people and men in particular, continue to hold the upper hand in who is believed, and the stories of people of color, women and LGBTQ+ folks are often undermined or tossed aside. Recently these dynamics came to a head when “Empire” star Jussie Smollett, a Black gay man, was charged for allegedly faking a hate crime against himself. Even before Smollett was charged with filing a false police report, let's talk about the news articles that were all labeled “Supposed Hate Crime.” Let's talk about how we continue to discredit victims of hate crimes, especially those from minority groups. Let's talk about the insidiousness of racism in our world where black and LGBTQ+ people are not believed for situations where others are. I am NOT excusing Smollett’s lying. Lying in this context is an incredibly harmful act. But I am concerned about the immediate skepticism that law enforcement and the public showed when a black gay man said that he was attacked in a hate crime. Because hate crimes DO happen.
In the weeks after evidence suggested that Jussie Smollett did in fact lie, social media was full of people complaining that Smollett’s lie will prevent real victims from minority groups from having their stories believed. Now, he certainly is not helping the credibility of victims. But let’s be honest. Does anyone looking to dismiss prejudice or target Black people and/or the LGBTQ+ community, really need Smollett as an excuse? You see how much effort was put forth to prove a black gay man was lying? Let’s try to put as much effort to protect these communities from hate crimes.
I know that historically, relations have been strained between the police and the LGBTQ+ community, particularly for LGBTQ+ folks of color. The 1969 riots at Stonewall Inn (a gay club in NYC’s West Village that continues to have awesome dance parties by the way) happened in a context of continuous police raids of spaces where LGBTQ+ social activities occurred with police harassing and arresting the individuals they found there.
But what are things like now? I decided to research more about the rates and experiences of hate crimes for LGBTQ+ people and how effective (or ineffective) the police have actually been in recent years. I came across a 2017 study where a group of researchers surveyed a large sample of 593 LGBT adults (18-67 years old) in the UK about their direct experiences of victimization and indirect experiences (personally knowing other victims of hate crimes) of different types of verbal and physical anti-LGBT hate crimes. The survey also measured each groups’ perspectives (based on experiences and attitudinal responses) towards criminal justice agencies, and prior contact with these agencies. Basically they wanted to know if and why LGBTQ+ people trusted the police to help them.
So what did they find? For starters, that hate crimes are not to be taken lightly. Respondents across sexual orientation and gender identity reported a wide variety of hate crime experiences involving physical assaults, use of weapons, verbal abuse and online abuse. In particular, they found that trans people were most likely to have experienced homophobic and transphobic hate crimes. 29% of trans respondents from the study experienced physical assault motivated by anti-LGBT hostility and 54% reported being victims of direct verbal abuse. To make things worse, they were also likely to experience more frequent incidents than lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents.
Now let's not be those people who think words don’t mean anything. Sticks and stones may break my bones? They do, but verbal abuse also has devastating effects.
And how effective did respondents feel the police were in their experiences of LGBTQ+ hate crimes? Well this study found that 32% of trans people did contact the police regarding their hate crime. However in line with the other studies, the researchers found that trans people were more likely to feel the police were less effective at dealing with anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes compared with non-trans participants. They felt that police should have special policies and procedures for anti-LGBT hate crimes so that they could do a better job protecting them.
When the LGBTQ+ community are victims of hate crimes and try to seek help from the police they are often met with a nonresponse or inadequate response. Research finds that they receive the most negative police attention, most unwanted sexual attention, ticketing, arrest, and physical assault. These instances include the police blaming the victim for the occurrence of the hate crime, or failing to fulfill key duties such as not appearing after a call for assistance, not taking an incident report, and/or intentional mismanagement of the case. This explains why they would oppose hate crime legislation or not report all crimes to the police. Because while hate crimes are a problem, many LGBTQ+ people see the criminal legal system as being a big source of that problem.
Jussie Smollett may have lied, but there are countless LGBTQ+ victims of hate crimes who are telling the truth and not being heard. Lets not use this case to diminish all of the others. Fifteen states still don’t have LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes protections on the books at all. A proposal to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the existing crime laws in Indiana was recently dropped. As a society we don’t need to dismiss the abuse that so many LGBTQ+ people face daily. Whether someone lied or not, the fact is hate crimes and bias attacks are dangerous. Law enforcement agencies already dismiss the abuse. We need to ensure that this perpetuation does not continue.
 Walters, M. A., Paterson, J., Brown, R., & McDonnell, L. (2017). Hate Crimes Against Trans People: Assessing Emotions, Behaviors, and Attitudes Toward Criminal Justice Agencies. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260517715026
 Briones-Robinson, R., Powers, R. A., & Socia, K. M. (2016). Sexual Orientation Bias Crimes: Examination of Reporting, Perception of Police Bias, and Differential Police Response. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 43(12), 1688–1709. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854816660583