Editors' note: Todd Heywood is a professional journalist for the Michigan Messenger.
Activists and leaders in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are raising a red flag of concern about the potential for violence following the attack on a gay 15-year-old in Portage, which sits across the Kalamazoo city limits, where a battle is underway to win approval of a controversial anti-discrimination ordinance.
And some fear that the conditions are right for more violence as rhetoric around the anti-discrimination ordinance heats up.
Josh Vandeburgh, who chairs the Kalamazoo Alliance for Equality (KAFE), said the attack is a worrisome development.
In a statement, Vandeburgh said:
"We were shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the recent attack against 15-year-old Steven Harmon of Portage. We hope to work with the police and justice system to ensure this case comes to an appropriate resolution. While we are appalled something like this could take place in our community, incidents like these highlight the ongoing need for community education regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in order to make the greater Kalamazoo area a safe and inclusive place to live, work, and play.”
Tom Sieler, president of the Kalamazoo Gay Lesbian Resource Center’s board of directors, said that even though his organization finds any sort of violence offensive, the Portage case is very alarming, because, as he said in a statement, it appears that the attack was “prompted by someone’s fear or hatred of the fact that someone else is somehow different.”
Two teenagers, age 15 and 16, are accused of beating 15-year-old Steven Harmon, who sustained injuries, including a fractured skull. Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeffrey Fink said the incident did include “very inappropriate” comments about Harmon.
Harmon has told WWMT-TV of Kalamazoo that the accused targeted him because of his sexual orientation. Fink said he could not confirm that accusation because the 15-year-old still had not had a trial on the aggravated assault charges. The 16-year-old has plead guilty to aggravated assault and is being held at the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Facility awaiting a September sentencing hearing.
And while Harmon and his mother told the television station that the assault will be tried as a hate crime, Fink said the youth would be prosecuted under Michigan law, but not as a hate crime. He said Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act does not provide enough flexibility to make sure a crime fits the punishment. Sexual orientation is not covered under the law.
The Democratic-controlled Michigan House voted to pass a series of bills to amend the Ethnic Intimidation Act, by expanding the law to include groups such as veterans and the LGBT community. The law would also allow for sentencing for a bias crime to be consecutive, rather than concurrent, as the law current stands. The bill has not received a hearing in the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate.
Experts who track violence against the LGBT community are concerned that the beating is an indicator of things to come. While there has been no comprehensive study of the issue, observers say that anti-gay violence often does go up during public fights over gay rights legislation at both the state and local level.
Alicia Skillman, executive director of the Detroit-based Triangle Foundation, which tracks LGBT hate crimes, said there is anecdotal evidence that crimes against the gay community “spikes” during ballot battles such as the one looming in Kalamazoo.
Sharon Stapel, executive director of the Anti-Violence Project in New York agreed with Skillman, but it may be difficult to draw a direct correlation.
“We assume that the more visible we are in the country, the more vulnerable we are to hate violence,” Stapel said.
Violence has also greeted other communities engaged in local ordinance campaigns.
In Gainesville, Fla., voters were asked to accept or reject an ordinance similar to the ordinance in Kalamazoo. Terry Fleming was one of the many campaign workers and served on the steering committee for a group called Equality Is Gainesville’s Business which fought for keeping the inclusive anti-discrimination ordinance in place.
While there were not any recorded cases of violence, there were several incidents of intimidation, threats of violence and name calling against supporters of the ordinance.
Voters rejected the proposed ordinance last year.
Back in Michigan, Gregory Manore, communications director for the Hamtramk United campaign, a group pushing to implement an anti-discrimination ordinance in the Wayne County city detailed incidents of intimidation in testimony given to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights:
At approximately 10:30 AM at St. Ladislaus Gymnasium, a man in a beige vehicle turning onto Brombach from Caniff yelled out his window, “No special rights for faggots!” Two men from the repeal campaign cheered and yelled back, “That’s right! No rights for fags!”
Later in the morning at Hamtramck City Hall, a man in a Northwest Airlines uniform approached both a supporter and an opponent of the Human Rights ordinance. “Which one of you is against the gay ordinance?” the man asked. A supporter of the ordinance began to speak in favor, to which the man replied, “Fuck you, you fuckin’ faggot! Say anything more and we’re gonna have issues.”
A short time later, a group of 8 to 10 children gathered at Zussman Park, across from Hamtramck City Hall. “Vote No!” the children cried. “No homos! No homos! No homos!”
At 2:00 PM at Hamtramck City Hall, an older man from the repeal campaign approached Joseph M., a voter. “Vote no, no, no to special rights for faggots,” the man told Joseph.
At approximately 2:30 PM at People’s Community Services, a supporter and opponent of the Human Rights ordinance were talking. The supporter informed the opponent that hatred and violence against gay and transgender teenagers often leads them to suicide. “Good,” the man said. “I’m glad.”
At about 3 PM outside Hamtramck High School, a man and a woman from the repeal campaign approached a voter. “Insurance rates are gonna go up because gays are diseased!” the woman exclaimed. “And they injure themselves!” the man added.
At 4:30 PM at Hamtramck High School, a man from the repeal campaign told two voters, “They [gays] should be put to death. It’s against God.” These incidents merely scratch the surface of a culture of homophobia in Hamtramck. Needless to say, for every one documented incident, there are countless others that go unreported, out of fear, embarrassment, or the threat of re-victimization.
In California, a spike in the number of reported hate crimes against LGBT people has been attributed to the fierce battle over marriage equality in November.
Voters approved an amendment to the Golden State’s constitution which banned same-sex marriage.