The tragedy in Orlando, although hundreds of miles away, hit close to home for Alabama’s LGBTQ community. Vigils have been held across Mobile and statewide, and community advocates have spoken out in solidarity with the 49 victims of the homophobic terrorist attack — the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Now, even though the ghosts of what happened in Pulse night club are still close, haunting the thoughts of those even tangentially involved, the innocent faces of those murdered should compel us all to act in ways we might not otherwise, and in Alabama, a way that may be seen as electorally damning by some politicians.
In 1999, Billy Jack Gaither, a Sylacauga man, was beaten and burned to death by two men after he allegedly “made a pass” at them. Since then, a handful of Alabama legislators have again and again unsuccessfully attempted to amend Alabama’s hate crime legislation to include sexual orientation as a protected class.
As currently written, the statute increases the mandatory penalties for crimes motivated by a victim’s “race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or physical or mental disability” by a range of three month to 15 years, depending on the crime. The law makes no mention of crimes based on a victim’s sexual orientation, something Alabama’s only openly gay public official, Rep. Pat Todd, says should change.
“Those who are perceived to be gay are the largest group of victims of hate crime, but the law doesn’t protect them,” Rep. Todd has said of the situation, and she’s right.
According to an analysis of FBI data conducted by The New York Times, LGBTQ people are the most likely minority group to be victimized by hate crime, at about twice the rate of African-Americans. About a fifth of all hate crimes reported to the FBI are committed because the victim is LGBTQ. And even though these numbers are revealing, they don’t even begin to tell the whole story.
“The unfortunate reality is these numbers only give us some kind of indication of what’s going on,” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok says of FBI hate crime statistics. “The state-by-state comparisons are fairly useless. What they really tell you is how good a job each state does in reporting hate crimes as opposed to what’s really on the ground.”
That’s a reality particularly in Alabama, where reporting of hate crime is the exception rather than the rule. Alabama’s lack of statistical transparency on this front has even gained the Yellowhammer State a prominent cameo in “Damned Lies and Statistics,” a book by University of Delaware professor Joel Best.
“Local officials, who may be reluctant to publicize tensions within their communities, may favor much narrower standards [for classifying a hate crime],” Best writes, “so that a cross-burning on an African-American family’s lawn may be classified as a ‘teenage prank,’ rather than a hate crime, depending on how police assess the offenders’ motives.”
These inconsistencies, which amount to inattention and a lack of commitment, Best says, contribute to problems in drawing conclusions from state-level hate crime numbers. And to Alabama’s role in the book:
“Because there is much variation in how — and even whether — agencies measure hate crimes, hate crime statistics have been incomplete and uneven. Many of the agencies that did file reports indicated that they had recorded no hate crimes during 1996: 12 states reported fewer than 10 hate crimes apiece; Alabama’s law enforcement agencies did not report a single hate crime.”
Sadly, even in 1999, the year Billy Jack Gaither was brutally murdered here in Alabama, the state did not report a single hate crime to the FBI, an omission which can be called nothing but an intentional slight toward the LGBTQ community. Even earlier this year, when a bisexual Alabama teenager was beaten and shot to death, the investigating sheriff, when asked whether the murder constituted a hate crime, told local media that “it depends on what you call a hate crime.”
Despite these clear and repeated injustices, action in the Alabama Legislature has been slow moving and change has not yet come.
“You know, the majority of people in the Legislature are not willing to touch this issue,” Rep. Todd has said.
Rep. Alvin Holmes, who was the first to introduce the legislation after the Gaither case in 1999, said that hesitancy to address the issue comes from a place of bias on the part of legislators.
“I think there are people [who are] against people because of sexual orientation, just like there are people against people because of race,” Holmes told the AP one year after he introduced the bill.
Others on Goat Hill have perennially been opposed to updating the legislation.
In 2006, the year Holmes was able to get the bill passed through House committee, then-Rep. Cam Ward threatened “to lock down the House” to prevent the bill’s passage “and we’ve got the votes to do it … We are giving certain victims higher status than others,” Ward said of the legislation. “I consider a victim a victim.”
Ironically, Ward and others opposed to the legislation have voted for bills that increase penalties for other classes of victims besides members of the LGBTQ community, including police officers and public officials. Just this year, the bill amending the hate crime bill to include sexual orientation passed committee but did not come up for a vote in the House; during the same legislative session, a bill increasing penalties for assaults on police officers passed the House 99-0.
In the wake of Orlando, the time for silence is over. It’s time for politicians — even here in the Heart of Dixie — to take seriously the issues that face our LGBTQ community — and tackle them head on.