Homophobic Hate and Equality Backlash

Friday, July 19, 2013

 Homophobic Hate and Equality Backlash
By: Jena McGill
A Statistics Canada report released last week found that the number of police-reported hate crimes in Canada declined for a second consecutive year in 2011, dropping from 4.1 incidents per 100,000 people in 2010 to 3.9 incidents per 100,000 people in 2011.   

The report also provided troubling information about the pervasiveness of hate crimes based on actual or perceived sexual orientation: 

· despite the overall decrease in police-reported hate crimes, crimes motivated by the actual or perceived sexual orientation of the victim increased by 10% in 2011;

· unlike the majority of hate-related incidents, which involve non-violent offences like vandalism and property damage, crimes motivated by sexual orientation are more likely to involve violence, and;

· the majority (70%) of persons accused in crimes motivated by hatred based on sexual orientation are youth and young adults under age 25.

The chronic underreporting of hate crimes, and the fact that the StatsCan report considers only those incidents that the police decide to classify as motivated by hate, virtually guarantee that the actual incidence of hate crimes based on sexual orientation is even greater than these numbers suggest.     

It is notable that the StatsCan report does not include any specific numbers on hate crimes motivated by an individual’s actual or perceived gender identity or expression.  This is a significant omission given that trans people and others of non-normative gender identities or expressions continue to experience overwhelming levels of discrimination, harassment and violence.  The realities of transphobia and hate crimes motivated by gender identity or expression are recognized in the recently-stalled Bill C-279 which seeks in part to prohibit the promotion of hatred on the basis of gender identity in the Criminal Code.  StatsCan should endeavour to disaggregate hate crimes data based on sexual orientation from that based on gender identity or expression in future studies of this sort. 

Notwithstanding these limitations, the latest StatsCan report is revealing.  It validates the virtual epidemic of harassment and bullying experienced by GLBTQ youth across Canada; it puts into context the recent spate of homophobic crimes in communities including Winnipeg and Chatham; and it confirms that hatred often takes the form of violence when a GLBTQ person is involved, as was the case in the tragic beating death of Halifax activist Raymond Taavel in April 2012.  The report verifies what too many GLBTQ people already know: homophobia remains a pervasive and seemingly intractable reality in Canadian society.

That homophobia continues to be the motivation for violence and discrimination in Canada, particularly among youths, might seem surprising.  The past two decades have seen a wave of legal and social change intended to further the visibility and equality of the GLBTQ community, from the prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation in human rights documents, to the recognition of same-sex marriage in 2004, to the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision that publishing statements that demean GLBTQ people is not the kind of activity protected by the freedom of expression clause in our constitution.  These developments could reasonably lead one to believe that the stigma and hatred historically associated with GLBTQ identities and same-sex behaviour is – or should be – in retreat.  And yet the StatsCan report confirms that realities on the ground are clearly much different.  What should we make of the incongruity between increased legal equality for GLBTQ people and increased rates of hate-motivated violence and discrimination?

This question is one facing communities outside of Canada, too.  In the United States, New York City has seen a sharp increase in homophobic violence over the past year, including a subway incident that occurred during Pride week this month, just weeks after the United States Supreme Court struck down the Defence of Marriage Act, a law that denied federal benefits to married same-sex couples.  Orange County, California similarly reports an increase in homophobic hate crimes in 2012, in the midst of the Proposition 8 case, even as the overall rates of hate crimes decrease in the jurisdiction.  In May, an estimated 400,000 people participated in a heated, at times violent, protest against the legalization of same-sex marriage and adoption rights for queer people in France.  And on May 17th, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights released its findings from the largest study of hate crimes and discrimination against the GLBTQ community to date.  The Agency concluded: “At a time when the fundamental rights of LGBTI persons are being discussed in national parliaments across the European Union, initial survey findings reveal that nearly a half of all respondents had felt discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation in the past year before the survey.”

Some have begun to suggest that the sharp uptick in homophobic hate crimes in jurisdictions where significant legal gains have been made by GLBTQ people in recent years is best understood as equality backlash.  Equality backlash often occurs when historically marginalized groups gain power and rights, shifting the status quo and threatening existing power arrangements (see, for example, escalating violence against women as anti-feminist backlash in Canada).  Responding to the May shooting death of Marc Carson in Greenwich Village, for example, Daniel D’Addario of Salon explained that homophobic hate crimes, “occurring as they do at what seems to be the tipping point before gay men and women become full citizens, may be the last gasp of a long and terrifying history.”  The “last gasp” of equality backlash should remind us that legislation and court rulings do not inevitably translate to the elimination of bias and stigma, nor do they necessarily prevent or deter systemic violence against GLBTQ people.  It could be easy, at this juncture, to become complacent; lulled into a false state of security by marriage equality, hate crimes legislation and anti-discrimination laws.  The onset of homophobic backlash reminds us that that these successes are stepping stones in the continuing fight to ensure full equality for GLBTQ people in Canada and around the world. 
Jena McGill is a Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa
Designed by Rachel Gold.