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Sword and Shield: Boise's LGBT Community Grapples With Violence

LGBT advocates demand stronger hate crimes legislation


In the early morning hours of June 12, Omar Mateen, 29, opened fire inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., killing 49 and injuring 53. His own death brought the grim total of those killed to 50. The shooting is the deadliest in modern U.S. history and has added heat to national conversations about terrorism, anti-LGBT violence and guns. Debate about Mateen's motivations will continue, but his choice of killing grounds was seen as intentional by LGBT communities around the country.

"The message I receive is, 'You're really just not welcome.' We're being persecuted," said Joseph Kibbe during a June 12 rally at the Idaho Capitol to show solidarity with the victims of the massacre.

On the same day, Boise Pridefest organizers, deep in the planning for this year's Pride festival, received a violent threat on the organization's Facebook page. Pridefest informed Boise police of the threat and there was additional security at this year's events.

From Orlando to Boise, the Pulse shooting added a somber tone to otherwise celebratory and, most important, safe Pride demonstrations; but, in the Gem State, the LGBT community was already grappling with a gruesome case of anti-gay violence with the murder in April of Boise State University employee, local actor and openly gay advocate for equality Steven Nelson.

For many in the community, Nelson's death highlighted a glaring lack of legal protections for LGBT people—beyond the Add the Words movement to include "sexual identity" and "gender orientation" to the state's human rights law, Idaho's "malicious harassment" law does not carry enhanced penalties for those convicted of targeting people based on their sexual or gender identities.

While Add the Words can be seen as a shield against discrimination, strengthening Idaho's malicious harassment law would serve a sword with which to punish those who specifically target people in the LGBT community.

Nationally, Mateen's spree was a reminder of how dangerous America still is for LGBT people. For Idaho, it highlighted a group long ignored by state lawmakers and scarred by horrific recent violence.

Hate crimes are widely underreported. Every year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation collects data from participating law enforcement agencies on hate crimes and issues a report as part of its Uniform Crime Reporting Program. The most recent report, based on data from 2013, showed 5,928 hate crimes involving 7,242 victims nationally, with 20.8 percent being committed on account of the victim's sexual orientation and 0.5 percent on the victim's gender identity. Heidi Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the degree to which such crimes never see the light of day is extreme.

"In the U.K., which has about 80 million people, they record every year about 56,000 hate crimes," she said. "Obviously, our country, with its racial history and all that, it's just silly, right? The numbers just don't reflect the extent of the social problem."

Beirich referred to a number of problems with the FBI's hate crime census, including that it relies on voluntary reports from police departments and other law enforcement agencies. A more accurate reflection may come from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 2012, the BJS published a study estimating the true number of hate crime victimizations at closer to 255,000-260,000 per year, and up to 60 percent of all hate crimes go unreported.

The count of hate crimes committed against LGBT people may be particularly inaccurate because of widespread social stigma. In May, the White House issued a letter to every school district in the United States directing them to allow students to use restrooms in accordance with their gender identities, rather than their birth sex. Blowback was swift, with Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter calling the order a "power play," Lt. Gov. Brad Little calling it "unreasonable executive overreach" and other critics calling it an open door for sexual predators to exploit schoolchildren. According to a Pew study, overall public support for LGBT issues is high since same-sex marriage became the law of the land in 2015, but many Americans still harbor sentiments that equate LGBT people as "child molesters, sick, diseased."

"There is a sector of our society that is radically opposed to these ideas, and that's worrisome," Beirich said.

Fear of re-victimization and retribution have been a de-motivating factor for reporting hate crimes motivated by LGBT status. Another is mistrust of the police. Nicole LeFavour, an author, Boise Weekly contributor, longtime advocate and openly LGBT former Idaho state senator, has worked with the LGBT community for years, hearing many of its stories of violence and abuse. She said a major problem with the reporting of violent crimes motivated by the victim's sexual orientation or gender identity is victims' experiences with law enforcement.

"For some, they're simply afraid. [Idaho is] a state where anti-gay attitudes are not uncommon, and they don't think they'll get sympathy from police," she said. "They didn't report it at the time, but live with the consequences."

The situation has improved in the past few years, with numerous cities across the Gem State adding nondiscrimination ordinances to local statute, which has sent a strong message to local police and city councils to take LGBT rights seriously. For several years, the Boise Police Department has had a liaison on staff to improve its relationship with the LGBT community. LeFavour said she'd have liked more public support from Boise City leaders, but that was before Mayor Dave Bieter's Boise Pridefest speech on the Idaho Statehouse steps, where he acknowledged progress made and pointed to the shooting in Orlando as a reminder of "how far we have to go" before making a call to action.

"We need the people in this building behind me to also 'add the words,'" he said.

LeFavour and Bieter agree: The fight is at the Idaho Legislature, where legislators have told LeFavour to "show [them] the numbers" proving LGBT people are harmed by the state not updating its human rights and malicious intimidation laws. Here are those numbers: According to the 2014 Idaho State Police Hate Crime in Idaho report, there were 26 reported hate crimes in the Gem State in 2014—a decrease of 18.7 percent from 2013. Sixteen of those incidents involved some kind of assault and three were committed against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, down half from 2013. Most (16) of the reported incidents were reported to ISP by the Boise and Nampa police departments.

ISP's statistics reflect reported hate crimes, but those numbers may also be incomplete, as it's up to individual police departments to charge crimes. Currently, 27 states' hate crime laws have such requirements. Thirteen states have laws covering sexual orientation and 17 states cover both sexual orientation and gender identity. Idaho's law covers race, color, religion, ancestry and national origin, but not sexual orientation or gender identity. Five states have no such laws at all.

Many of the laws in place harken back to an effort in the 1980s by the Anti-Defamation League, which states have adopted and updated over the years, including adding language about sexual orientation and gender identity.

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ADL Civil Rights Vice President Seth Marnin said there was a time when "beating the crap" out of a gay man leaving a bar was totally fine.

"Over time, folks realized, actually, it's not," Marnin said. "The law sort of caught up, in many places, with that."

Particularly visible hate crimes, he said, can speed up that process. The murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd in 1998 spurred the creation of a federal hate crimes law, the Shepard/Byrd Act, in 2009. It remains to be seen what, if any, effect the mass shooting in Orlando will have. "I think it caught folks attention in a way that other incidents of bias hadn't," Marnin said. "Folks started to understand [it's] important to acknowledge that the community is targeted in a different way, and having laws that recognize that is important," he said.

The Shepard/Byrd Act is a landmark law because it collected and streamlined the myriad federal hate crime laws on the books. At the time of its creation, it was hailed as a sign that lawmakers were beginning to take LGBT issues seriously on a national level. Between its passage in 2009 and 2013, it was used to charge 44 people in 16 states with federal offenses. For Marnin, however, state laws are more effective because the law enforcement agencies that are typically the first on the scene investigating hate crimes can retain jurisdiction, and local prosecutors can press charges using state laws.

But it was to the Shepard/Byrd Act and U.S. District Attorney Wendy Olson that Better Idaho appealed in the case of the murder of Steven Nelson.