Hate Crimes and the Homosexual Refugee

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Before he became famous for the Star Wars films, writer/director George Lucas made a movie called THX 1138. In this film, set in a dystopian future, opposite-sex passion was forbidden and punishable by death. Two lovers of the opposite sex try to hide their feelings, only to find it impossible to do so. For heterosexuals, this film shows how it might feel to be gay in a hostile world. This experience of forbidden love forms the narrative for the lives of many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) youth.

When Tyler Clementi leaped to his death from the George Washington Bridge last month, he left behind a sea of grief and a mountain of unanswered questions. New to Rutgers University, like most freshmen, he likely felt awkward and afraid. Hoping for social acceptance and connection, he set up dates in his room, after asking his roommate for privacy. His roommate allegedly conspired with another student to broadcast Tyler’s private homosexual encounters over the Internet. Charged with invasion of privacy and possible hate crimes, the two voyeurs likely ruined their lives and destroyed Tyler’s.

A hate crime, under current federal law, comprises criminal conduct motivated by prejudices based on some aspect of a victim’s identity, such as race or religion. Victims of hate crimes often suffer more depression, stress, anxiety and anger than victims of other violent crimes. This may stem from the very frightening prospect of being hated for something you can’t change in yourself. Targets of hate crimes often suffer symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, including nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and emotional numbness.

Before the Internet, a kid could reinvent himself by moving away to another school or another town. You could escape from gossip and find yourself in a better place. Now, there is no escape from your digital past. Want a government security clearance? Sorry, you’ve done some obscene stuff on video. Want to win a beauty contest? Well, that mean girl took pictures of you in the shower and there’s a Web site to prove it.

A recent study by Dr. Karen Franklin from the University of Washington found half of all young men surveyed admitted some form of anti-gay aggression. Of those who did not admit to anti-gay aggression, three in ten reported a likelihood to behave aggressively if a homosexual attempted a seduction. Penn State researcher Sue Rankin co-authored a report showing high rates of harassment and a lack of safety for GLBT youth on college campuses. In this hostile climate it’s no wonder that GLBT youth have higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicide attempts than their heterosexual counterparts.

I’ve counseled GLBT youth who felt accepted by one parent and loathed by the other. One could tell his parents, but had to stay closeted for the grandparents. Another bright and compassionate teen lost his church youth group leadership position after a peer revealed his sexual orientation. Though still an innocent virgin, the fact that he had homosexual feelings made him unfit to lead.

Many churches across the country actively foment hatred for homosexuals. Ironically, the same religious leaders and politicians spitting hate speech from the podium often hide a history of criminal predatory sexual behavior. Psychologists have a name for this. When we have feelings that make us uncomfortable, our mind comes up with a quick defense so that we can feel all right about ourselves. Reaction Formation is an ego defense mechanism that allows one to hide uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking feelings by expressing the opposite emotion. One can protect a heterosexual image by loudly expressing hatred for homosexuals.

Tyler Clementi left digital clues about how he felt shortly before he killed himself. He wrote in a chat forum:

...and so I feel like it was ‘look at what a fag my roommate is.’–other people have commented on his profile with things like “how did you manage to go back in there?” “are you ok?” and the fact that the people he was with saw my making out with a guy as the scandal, whereas I mean come on…he was SPYING ON ME…do they see nothing wrong with this?

The world might still get to hear Tyler Clementi’s wonderful violin music if one person had written, “How dare you invade his privacy like that! You should be ashamed of yourself!” How lonely Tyler must have felt when he realized that hostile voyeurism and humiliation were socially acceptable, but he was the pervert because he kissed a boy in his own room.

We can all help prevent teen suicides. Parents and friends of GLBT youth can join Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). We all should read the information accumulated by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Here, you can learn how to support the healthy development of young people struggling in a hostile world. Post the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number in your workplace (1-800-273-TALK). And for you GLBT teens out there, don’t give up hope. As lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge sings, “You don’t have to live like a refugee.”
Originally published at Women in Crime Ink (October 7, 2010).