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 Violence Against Gays and Lesbians

Although the prevalence of anti-gay and lesbian violence is not fully known on a national scale, studies are providing detailed statistics on its possible extent:

  • Anti-gay and lesbian incidents increased 8 percent from 1999 to 2000. Serious injuries resulting from these incidents decreased by forty-one percent (Moore, 2001).
  • In 1999, the FBI reported that there were 1,317 incidents of violence based on sexual orientation. Of those, anti-male homosexuality violence characterized sixty-nine percent of the incidents (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2000).
  • Approximately one-half of perpetrators are age twenty-one or younger. (Comstock, 1991).
  • A campus survey reported that 61 percent of the gay/lesbian respondents feared for their safety as their orientation would be used as a reason for violence. (Herek, Berrill, 1992).


The victimization of gays and lesbians based upon their sexual orientation includes harassment, vandalism, robbery, assault, rape and murder. The location of these crimes is not restricted to dark streets leading from gay establishments. Violence against gays and lesbians occurs everywhere: in schools, the workplace, public places and in the home. Those who commit these acts come from all social/economic backgrounds and represent different age groups (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Safety and Fitness Exchange, Lance Bradley and Kevin Berrill, 1986.)

The Societal Context

The majority of violent acts tends to be committed by younger males. Berrill reports that “the general profile of a ‘gay-basher’ a young male, often acting together with other young males, all of whom are strangers to the victim(s)” (Herek Berrill, 1992, p.29). Gregory M. Herek provides a framework to explain the problem: “Heterosexism is an ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any non-heterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship, or community. Like racism, sexism, and other ideologies of oppression, heterosexism is manifested both in societal customs and institutions....” He continues by pointing out that one half of states outlaw consenting sex between adult homosexuals. (Herek, Berrill, 1992, p. 
89-91). Howard J. Ehrlich further expounds “...that three basic threats evoke a violent response: violations of territory or property, violations of the sacred, and violations of status...the victim’s behavior or potential behavior is defined by the actor as leaving no choice but to respond with violence” (Herek, Berrill, 1992, p.108-109).

This learned behavior can be traced to subtle societal approval. Herek discusses views by gays and lesbians which advocate for a more positive portrayal of homosexual characters in the film industry (Herek, Berrill, 1992). Other sources indicate this effort has some momentum. “Frequently, homosexual characters are the murdering bad guys, from Will Paton in ‘No Way Out’ and Al Pacino in ‘Cruising’ to Elizabeth Ashley in ‘Windows’ and Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve in ‘Deathtrap.’ Just as often, they are filled with self-loathing and doom, suffering for their homosexuality, from Marlon Brando in ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ and Rod Steiger in ‘The Sergeant’ to Sandy Dennis in ’The Fox’” (Gilbert, 1992).

Comstock reported that according to a Wall Street Journal survey, 66 percent of chief executive officers of Fortune-500 companies are reluctant to promote homosexuals to management level positions and, in his own survey, 77 percent of male first-year college students have been brought up to disapprove of homosexuality. Comstock also points to data which describe perpetrators and their scenarios of violence. Male adolescents require “recognizing and conforming to the cultural stereotype of masculinity...” and “high sex-role identification” (Comstock, 1991, p.107-111). These developmental stages within the heterosexism model can have worse results than close-mindedness, especially as some social scientists explain social identification: “...anti-gay violence can help in-group members to feel more positive about their group and consequently about themselves as well” (Herek, Berrill, p. 160).

The victims may “perceive their offenders as representative of the dominant culture in society and an agent of that culture’s stereotyping of the victim’s culture” (Serving Victims of Bias Crimes, 1992). Although homosexuality in itself is not sufficient to compose a separate culture, it is easily understood why this attitude prevails when considering Herek’s discussion of the roles religion, law and mass media play in subordinating gays and lesbians (Herek, Berrill, 1992). “Regardless of the attackers’ motives, victims almost always are chosen for what they are rather than who they are. This is why anti-gay hate crimes are a form of terrorism. The attack is against the community as a whole” (Herek, 1991).

Special Concerns for Victims

Similar to violence directed toward those for ethnic, religious or for any reasons found inherent in the victim’s’s inner-self, anti-gay and lesbian violence may pit the victims against themselves. The feelings of vulnerability due to criminal reactions by others can lead to stress and self-dehumanization. The victim viewing himself or herself as perpetually vulnerable or that his or her existence is the cause of this violence is unhealthy and maladaptive. It is important that they not fall into the common trap of self-blame and recognize that their orientation did not lead to the attack, but rather consider “that this was not a random attack, but a pre-meditated, purposeful act aimed at...their community” (Serving Victims of Bias Crimes, 1992).

Programs to Reduce Anti-Gay/Lesbian Violence

A practical victim assistance/crime prevention measure was established after the hate-motivated murder of Paul Broussard of Houston, Texas on July 4, 1991. This community, proactive program allows police to escort gays to their cars in a large gay area in Houston (Hightower, 1992). The New York City Anti-Violence Project detected a 10 percent drop in the severity of anti-gay and lesbian attacks from 1990 to 1991 and attributed the decrease to community patrols. The Project currently sponsors a program which examines and responds to violence toward those perceived or reportedly perceived to have HIV/AIDS. Berrill reports “all evidence suggests that AIDS has negatively affected the cultural climate in which anti-gay violence occurs” (Herek, Berrill, p.38).

Considerations for Victims

The victim has the right to not report an incident if he or she so chooses. If the attack requires hospitalization, medical service providers may be required to report the incident to the police. If so, the victim may identify the attack as hate-related or not. There are several arguments for reporting the incident as hate-related. Without documentation as to the prevalence of anti-gay or lesbian violence, there is less justification for legislation to be enacted which will hopefully decrease the frequency of these crimes. Just as legislation requires justification to be enacted, so do programs set up in response to specific problems. Without input from victims, community patrols or other programs may be suspended. On an interpersonal level, increased exposure to gays and lesbians may work toward dispelling negative stereotypes, and thus reduce a perceived threat to would-be offenders. To anonymously report crimes against gays and lesbians, victims or witnesses can call the Department of Justice, Community Relations Service National HATE Crime Reporting Hotline at (800) 346-HATE.


Comstock, Gary David. (1991). Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men. New York: Columbia University Press.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2000). Crime in the United States, 1999. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

Gilbert, Mathew. (1992). “Beyond Villains & Buffoons; Gay and Lesbian Activists Want Hollywood to Broaden Its Portrayal of Them on Film.” The Boston Globe, March 22, 1992, p.B25.

Herek, Gregory M. And Kevin T. Berrill. (1992). Hate Crimes: Confronting Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Hightower, Susan. (1992). “Murder Leads to Protection for Gays; Hate Crime: ‘Q-Patrol’ Officers Now Escort Bar Patrons to their Cars, Police are Given Credit for a Safer Neighborhood.” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1992, p.21 col.1.

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Safety and Fitness Exchange. Lance Bradley, and Devin Berrill (1986): “Dealing with Violence: A Guide for Gay and Lesbian People.” Washington, D.C.

Moore, K. (2001). Anti-lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Bisexual Violence in 2000. New York: National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

Young, Marlene A. (1992). “Serving Victims of Bias Crimes.” The Road to Victim Justice: Mapping Strategies for Service, A Series of Regional Training Conferences. National Organization for Victim Assistance and National Victim Center.

For additional information, please contact:

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1734 14th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20009
(202) 332-6483

National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence
132 Stephens Hall Annex
Towson State University
Towson, MD 21204
(410) 830-2435