PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Sociologist Richardson: Where are the leaders?

In California in 2000, the anti-marriage equality ballot measure called Question 22 was approved by 61.4 percent of voters. Eight years later, the issue was back on the state’s ballot as Question 8, and while it was approved again, it passed by only 52.5 percent. Opposition to marriage equality had dropped almost nine percentage points in eight years.

In Nevada, where a similar measure went on the ballot by initiative petition, the figures were less dramatic but went in the same direction. In Nevada, the measure had to pass in two general elections two years apart. In the first round of voting in 2000, the measure passed by 69.62 percent. In second round voting in 2002, it passed by 67.2 percent. In two years opposition to marriage equality lost 2.4 percent of its strength (which, if projected onto eight years, would be a greater drop than in California).

For those who believe that acceptance of gays is a sign of a healthy society, these striking changes in public sentiment were encouraging. But the rate of crime against gays did not follow such a steady line downward. In the first half of the first decade of the century, there was a sharp decline in anti-gay crime, but then it rose slightly and leveled off. Other sources show more fluctuating—and higher—figures recently. By any set of figures, a drop in gay bashing does not appear likely any time soon.

What happened in Orlando last weekend was surprising only in its scale. Violence against gays has been common for decades. Until the 1970s, official anti-gay violence was frequent, little covered by journalists, and drew little sympathy from the public when it became known. Police officers brutalized gays, invaded their gathering places, and jailed them, where they sometimes were further injured. There were statutes making homosexuality illegal.

Once gays began gaining political power and incidents like the police invasion of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village caused public backlash, police violence began to decline, but it continued from other sectors—often exacerbated by attacks on gays from political activists that were rarely leavened with warnings against violence.

When a Moral Majority chapter launched an anti-gay campaign in San Francisco in 1981, its advocates said nothing to discourage violence against gays but did make reference to “the Sodom and Gomorrah of the United States and the armpit of this perverted movement … a capital crime against God and upon society.” It’s a judgment call whether that kind of language encourages violence.

When Oregonian Lon Mabon launched an anti-gay petition in Nevada in 1994, and Las Vegan Richard Ziser started an ultimately successful anti-marriage equality initiative petition in 2000, neither of them urged nonviolence.

Given the decades-long history of violence against gays, do critics of the gay lifestyle have an obligation to couple their attacks on gays with calls for order and nonviolence?

“They certainly do,” said University of Nevada, Reno sociologist James Richardson. “But that doesn’t mean they’re going to follow through with that. I mean, we have abortion doctors being killed, we have gays being killed, and those are often not condemned. Some people have very strong views. Fundamentalists of varied stripes have strong feelings.”

When condemnation does not follow violent incidents, Richardson said, it encourages more of them. He said anti-gay feelings among some people are so strong that it elevates minor issues.

“Who uses what bathroom has somehow become a hill to die on for some,” he said.

Discomfort

But in researching this article, we also found something of a lack of Democrats discouraging anti-gay violence, too. Not until an Orlando happens does it come up. And silence creates a climate of harsh language in which violence can thrive. Must politicians and religious leaders wait until an Orlando to discourage anti-gay violence?

“We have a real dearth of leadership,” Richardson said.

Some gays say they feel the silence of Democrats simply reflects the discomfort some people still feel about gays. It is reflected in other ways, too, they say.

“We have spousal abuse campaigns and bullying campaigns,” said a UNR student. “Where is the stop anti-gay violence campaign?”

Other gays are unsure about that idea, but they say there are other ways that gays are made to feel they don’t count.

“No one was collecting data on people killed by police until last year—well, data collection on gay-bashing isn’t anything to brag about, either,” one prominent gay Renoite told us.

The Fatal Encounters database showed not just a high percentage of minorities were killed by police, but also a high number of people with histories of mental troubles—both groups that have had a history of being regarded as unimportant or disdained by society.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that thousands of police agencies fail to report hate crimes or hate crime allegations to the FBI. In fact, “more than 2,700 city police and county sheriff’s departments across the country that have not submitted a single hate crime report for the FBI’s annual crime tally during the past six years— about 17 percent of all city and county law enforcement agencies nationwide.”

Mark Potok, an official of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told AP reporter Christina Cassidy, “If these crimes are never really counted, it’s a way of saying they are not important.”

Richardson said that given the dramatic legal progress and changes gays have made, even he has been surprised at the enduring problems with anti-gay sentiment—and that may account for the reticence of Democrats, too.

“I usually think of Democrats and liberals as kind of passive, and it hasn’t occurred to them that someone would visit such violence on gays, particularly after the progress of the last few years. They think we’ve passed the time when someone would strap a gay person to a tree in Wyoming with barbed wire. I’m thinking of my own sentiments and how I feel, and I’m astonished that something that happened in Orlando could still happen.”

He also said, “There is an irony, a tragic irony, that what happened in Orlando is going to cause more sympathy to rebound to the victims and strengthen support for gays.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...