Last week, 18-year-old New Yorker Anthony Collao became the latest victim of anti-gay violence in America. In the middle of a Queens house party hosted by a couple of gay men, a group of attackers reportedly stormed the place, shouted anti-gay epithets, marked the walls with slurs, then chased Collao down and beat him to death.
Collao was straight. To the GLAA Forum's Charlie Watson, that means that his death will resonate throughout the mainstream media in a way that a similar crime against a gay person would not.
"While anti-gay violence is run of the mill, mistaken attacks on straight people are often considered newsworthy because of the 'man bites dog' aspect of the crime," Watson writes. "Plus the media likes to note when there are innocent victims of crime (as opposed to crimes against gay people)."
Guilty as charged. Earlier this month, I drew attention to the story of a straight George Washington University student who was targeted with anti-gay slurs while being severely beaten in a university dorm. I'm of two minds on this issue: While I agree that highlighting anti-gay crimes against straight people can be problematic, these attacks also raise a host of interesting issues that I feel are worthy of discussion. Anti-gay crimes against straight people shouldn't claim column inches over the "run of the mill" anti-gay violence that happens every day. But reporting out these crimes can also help lend insight into the everyday attacks and renew focus on the wider problem.
So at the risk of drawing even more attention to the phenomenon, let's take a closer look at media coverage of anti-gay crimes on straight people, and how it affects our attitudes on sexual orientation, victim-blaming, and the criminal justice system:
Straight victims can help straight people care about hate crimes. If you are, for example, a straight-identified, well-to-do newspaper columnist who has never experienced discrimination in his lifetime—and certainly not in the form of a severe beating!—you may question why bias-related crimes deserve increased media attention at all. Cases like these ones can help straight people begin to question their privilege on that issue. Given the amount of anti-gay violence affecting gay people in this country, it can be infuriating when the media shines a light on the comparatively minor problem of "homophobia hurts straight people too!" At the same time, I do think it's helpful to illustrate all the strange ways that gender and sexuality are condemned (and punished) in the United States. This culture affects everyone, whether they realize it or not.
But they also give straight people license to dismiss hate crimes. On the flip-side: When a straight person is targeted in an anti-gay crime, it gives other straight commentators an opportunity to argue that hate crimes don't matter and no one should pay attention to them. Sure, certain straight commentators have been known to complain openly about being expected to care when gay people are systematically targeted and killed. But when a straight person falls victim to a similar crime, that attitude suddenly becomes just a little bit less gauche. If "homophobia hurts straight people too," straight people are freed to totally dismiss violent homophobia. And since violent homophobia so rarely targets straight people, they are unlikely to experience the consequences of that attitude. A note to reporters, myself included: Context matters. When reporting on anti-gay attacks on straight people, readers can use an explicit reminder of the alarming rates of hate crimes affecting gays, lesbians, and trans people in the U.S.
Straight victims test the limits of hate crimes legislation. Hate crimes legislation—which affords harsher penalties for crimes motivated by bias—remains controversial in the U.S. Whatever your opinion on hate crime law, it's always a good idea to keep testing our criminal justice system as values shift and new scenarios emerge. Hate crimes that involve unconventional victims or perpetrators help us reassess our approach to these crimes.
So: When a straight student was attacked and targeted with anti-gay slurs at GW this month, the crime raised questions about the ubiquity of anti-gay epithets among young Americans, and how that culture could affect hate crime prosecutions moving forward. In an environment where anti-gay slurs are increasingly disconnected from actual sexual orientation, can the criminal justice system separate incidental homophobia from motivational homophobia? Should it?
Also testing the limits of hate crime law: In January, a local gay man was accused of employing anti-gay epithets while attacking a straight man—because the straight guy had hurled an identical slur at him. Though the crime was originally classified as bias-motivated, the designation was later dropped. Under what circumstances can the use of an anti-gay slur be dismissed as an element of a crime? When the slur is incited by another slur? When the attacker is a gay man attempting to turn the epithet on its head? Do slurs mean different things in different contexts, and is the law sensitive enough to know the difference?
Focusing on straight victims can reinforce the notion that gays "ask" to be attacked. I agree with Watson that increased attention on anti-gay crimes against straights tends to reinforce the narrative that straight people are innocents, while gays are somehow "asking for it," "flaunting their sexuality," or otherwise bringing the crime upon themselves. The victim in the GWU case subtly reinforced that idea in an interview with the GW Hatchet following the attack. "I'm extremely surprised that at such a progressive school such a hate crime would happen," he said. "I'm even more surprised that it would happen to a straight, white male." When we say that anti-gay crimes against gays are surprising—but anti-gay crimes against straights are shocking—we unwittingly empathize with the gay basher.
Focusing on straight victims can also help illustrate the depths of homophobia. When a straight person falls victim to an anti-gay hate crime, those same homohobes who blame gay victims for "flaunting their sexuality" will also search for clues that a straight victim was not straight enough, and therefore complicit in the attack. Perhaps the victim was hanging out with gay people; maybe he did not act, dress, or talk "straight" enough. These crimes reveal a culture of homophobia where it's not enough that a person be not-gay. He must be not-anything-like-gay. Ideally, he must be anti-gay. In this hierarchy, straight people are punished for not being gay enough—and not hating gays enough—thus perpetuating anti-gay violence.