- Teasing out the hate in a hate crime (Photo: Samuel Corum)
Last weekend, a senior at the George Washington University was brutally assaulted inside campus dorm Ivory Tower. According to a police report, the victim was allegedly pushed against a wall, repeatedly punched and kicked, declared a "fucking faggot" and a "motherfucker," and left with a severe head injury. Fellow senior Ross Richardson has been charged with felony assault in the crime, which D.C. police have initially classified as bias-related. "I'm extremely surprised that at such a progressive school such a hate crime would happen," the victim told GW student newspaper the Hatchet. "I'm even more surprised that it would happen to a straight, white male."
I'm not overly surprised by the development. In my experience at the school, casual homophobia is as common at GW as just about any other U.S. institution of higher learning—which makes the hate-crime designation all the more interesting.
D.C.'s bias-related crime act [PDF] states that MPD can make a hate-crime designation if the attack "demonstrates an accused's prejudice based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family responsibility, homelessness, physical disability, matriculation, or political affiliation of a victim of the subject designated act."
Clearly, utilizing an anti-gay epithet against another person while inflicting internal head bleeding upon him demonstrates a deep prejudice against gays. But I'm not convinced that it necessarily betrays a prejudice against the sexual orientation, real or perceived, of the specific victim in this case. On college campuses everywhere, "faggot" has emerged as an all-purpose pejorative that is applied to both gays and straights in a wide range of contexts. The ubiquity of the epithet—which equates being gay with a whole host of negative perceptions, many of which have little relation to sexuality—absolutely perpetuates homophobia in America. But it also makes it more likely that the word will be used in an attack against a person who is actually—and is actually perceived to be—straight.
The victim in the case says he had never encountered his attacker before the crime, and doesn't seem to have any inkling as to why he was targeted. He told the Hatchet only that if the attacker had not been drunk at the time of the assault, "it doesn't paint a very good picture of humanity." Anti-gay prejudice remains one possible motive in the crime, and if the hate crime classification sticks, Richardson could face one-and-a-half times the regular sentence. In order to secure the enhanced sentencing, "the government must establish beyond a reasonable doubt both that the defendant committed the crime, and that he or she was motivated by prejudice because of an actual or perceived difference. It is not sufficient to merely prove that the defendant belonged to different group than the victim; the criminal act had to have been motivated by the prejudice." In the case of a straight-on-straight hate crime, it will be interesting to see if the defense attempts to tease out the difference between motivational homophobia and incidental hatred.
Richardson isn't the first person to stand accused of wielding the F-word in an assault against a straight person this year. In January, a District panhandler allegedly called District gay man Kevin Perry a "faggot" outside of 17th Street gay bar J.R.'s. According to a police report filed in the case, Perry was accused of retaliating to the epithet by threatening the panhandler, hitting him in the back, and referring to both the panhandler and himself as a "faggot." According to a Washington Blade report: "A police report filed in court, based on accounts by the panhandler and an unidentified witness, quotes Perry as calling the panhandler a 'faggot' at the time Perry allegedly assaulted him. 'I will kill you. You’re a faggot,' the report quotes Perry as saying. 'I’m a real faggot, bitch. You don’t want to fuck with a real faggot, bitch. I will fucking kill you."
Perry was charged with simple assault, possession of a prohibited weapon, and misdemeanor threats to do bodily harm. The incident was initially classified as a hate crime, but the designation was later abandoned; in a plea deal, Perry pleaded guilty to the assault and threat charges, while the weapon charge was dropped.
The rationale for increased sentencing of hate crimes is that a bias-motivated attack harms more than just the victim of violence—it threatens the entire community targeted by the epithet, too. Under that rationale, does it matter if the literal victim in the case is actually perceived to be a member of the wider community that's threatened by the slur accompanying it? And should a perpetrator be punished for hating one group, and beating up another?