Hate Crimes: The dangers of being OUT

By: Ricardo Rivera Torres, Fabiola Gracia Porta and Jose Blanco Juan

“. . . With his wings from heaven to help us carry on . . .” said an aunt of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado in an article on the Edge on his funeral held on November 23, 2009 in Toa Alta.

            According to Edge.com an estimated thousand people attended from numerous cities in the island. Jorge Steven was an openly gay 19 year old man who lived in Caguas and was….He was found decapitate, dismembered and burned on November 14, 2009. His death made international news and triggered marches and vigils in places like New York, Anchorage, Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles New Orleans, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Francisco, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Washington, DC, Santa Monica and others.            

          Here in Mayaguez there was a march directed by the Gay Alumni Movement of the U.P.R.M called “March against Homophobia and for Diversity Respect”. The march began from La Plaza de Colon and ended main entrance of el R.U.M. where it became a vigil in memory of Jorge. In this moving ceremony there were various performances from professor, musicians, poets and entertainers. One of the most touching moments was when Jonathan Lopez Matos took the stage and read a powerful message sent by Jorge’s partner Luis Rivera thanking all those who attended and have been involved in bringing justice to his death.

            The death of Lopez Mercado and its circumstances also provoked the gay community of Puerto Rico to demand for it to be judged as a hate crime. A hate crime is when a person offends or intends to offend another based on the victim’s race, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, social condition, origin, religion, age or political beliefs. According to Article 73(q) of the penal code in P.R, when any committed crime is motivated by prejudice, for the reasons established, it is considered as aggravate when deciding sentence and/or punishment.

Statistics from the F.B.I database show that there has been an increased in sexually-oriented hate crimes since 2006.  In 2006 of the 9,652 victims 15.3 percent were bias against sexual orientation, in 2007 of the 9,535 victims, 15.9 percent were bias against sexual orientation and in 2008 of the 9,691 they were 17.6 percent towards sexual orientation. This shows a gradual increase towards the LGBT community.

            Puerto Rico has been in some commotion after the brutal assassination of George Steven Lopez. Now that his killer is caught the whole island is now wondering, what now? Is justice going to implement hate crime law? Do we even have hate crime law here? These are just a few questions that can easily be resolve with a little history on Hate Crime Law.

The History        

            In 1969 under title 18 of the US code which deals with federal crimes and penal procedures, required the United State Sentencing Commission to increase the penalties on hate crimes, until now minor federal hate crime violators could face fine or up to one year in prison, or both. Others could face 10 years in prison, if they include bodily injuries and armed intimidation, while the major offenders like kidnapers and murders could face life in prison, or the death sentence.

            Hate crimes later went in to an update recession and it wasn’t until the early ’90 when President George H.W. Bush signed hate crime statistics act, where the word “gay” and “lesbian” where recognized. Later on 1997 the Campus Hate Crimes Right to Know Act of 1997 that says campus security must inform these kinds of crimes. Last update to the law was the Mathew Sheppard Act signed by President Obama which expands the original 1969 act to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

The debate

            The hate crime law have divided the federal penal code in half, on one hand we have pro law, which is pretty much self explainable, on the other hand we have a small group that says no to the law and they base on the fact that hate crimes cannot be accurately counted because given the ambiguous, subjective, and contentious concept of prejudice, it cannot be accurately defined. And anything like an accurate accounting is also doomed by the difficulty of reliably determining the motivation of individual and group offenders. In simple words, it’s hard to identify them in court because even a mediocre lawyer could defend his client who murdered someone for his or her sexual preference saying that it was a simple coincidence that the guy he murdered was gay.

Hate Crimes on Campus

            On ncjrs.gov you will find an excellent monograph on hate crimes on campus and the problems that major universities face. Here I will briefly describe them.

Problem 1: Campus police does not have proper training.

            Campus police are not usually train to identify and investigate in these particular crimes. In addition if they don’t properly identify them as hate crimes, identification of possible trends might be impossible.

Problem 2: Hate crimes and serious bias incidents are not reported

            Some universities either take long to report hate crimes or not reporting at all, thus increasing the chance of failing in investigation of these acts. Say for example a graffiti saying something offensive towards the gay community, this might be a important piece of information, but  if the university does not report that, that wall will be painted eventually and in that process loosing that central key to the investigation.

Problem 3: Police do not report hate crimes to campus administrators

            Police not informing prevents the university to support student from the affected or targeted groups, provide reasonable warnings to members of the campus community, and put prevention efforts in place.

Problem 4: Students, Staff, and Faculty Do Not Report Incidents up the Administrative Ladder

            When Students don’t inform or take long to inform to the higher authorities on campus high officials are denied to critical information. Then they will not be prepared to take action against perpetrators, initiate preventive measures, or respond knowledgeably to community and press inquiries.

Problem 5: administrators do not disseminate information on the campus community

             Word can go by pretty quickly trough campus, we all know that, but if university administrators do not inform about this several things may occur. Inaccurate information maybe pass down, the university can lose the opportunity to make a strong message that these crimes will not be tolerated on campus.

Cause for hate crimes

         There are different aspects of life that make people hate a specific sector of our society in particular the LGBT community. One of those aspects is society itself. Latin countries are known to be very “machistas” and Puerto Rico is not the exception. From a young age we grow up hearing people making jokes about gay people, calling them names like “pato” and much more worst things. While we get older we start to see these jokes like something normal and start looking at gay people as they were something out of normality. This type of intolerance to the gay community is almost a part of our culture. Which kinds of monsters are parents who let their kids grew up around this atmosphere of hatred? We have to raise our children in a way that they understand that everyone is equal.

Someone else to blame for these crimes here in Puerto Rico is our legislature. According to them the gay community doesn’t deserve the same laws that protect every other person. This in regard of same sex marriage plus other issues. Not long ago after a protest outside the Capitolio by the LGBT community the president of our legislature Tomas Rivera Shatz called gay people “twisted and mentally ill”. If our politicians don’t protect the LGBT community, who will?

         And perhaps the most important aspect which led to hate crimes is religion. Most who are opposed to homosexuality argue that homosexual sexual activity is a sin. There are many religious organizations like the “National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality” that intend to offer conversion therapy to change sexual orientation. The American Psychiatric Association states that political and moral debates over the integration of gays and lesbians into the mainstream of American society have obscured scientific data about changing sexual orientation they also state “Homosexuality is not a mental disorder and thus there is not need for a cure”.

         People that use the Bible in order to go against LGBT quote different scripts of it like Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.”Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads”. Also Romans 1:18-32, I Corinthians 6:9 and many other passages are use as a shield to homosexuality. Over the centuries people who misunderstood or misinterpreted the Bible have done terrible things. The Bible has been misused to defend bloody crusades and tragic inquisitions; to support slavery, apartheid, and segregation; to persecute Jews and other non Christian people of faith; to support Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust; to oppose medical science; to condemn interracial marriage; to execute women as witches; and to support the Ku Klux Klan. Shakespeare said it this way: “Even the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”

Up Close and personal:  OUR Gay Community

         “Homosexuality is not a sickness, Homophobia is” that is the motto of the Gay Alumni Movement  in the U.P.R.M. Founded out of the clear necessity, the Gay Alumni Movement (GAM) shows no signs of stopping. Founded by the current president Jonathan Lopez Matos on April 30, 2009 it has been responsible for numerous activities focused on educating everyone about the LGBT community. Its main focused is both heterosexual and homosexual people, their purpose is to educate and unify.

         Since its founding GAM has had conflicts with students on campus. For instance when founded the president and his partner put up flyers with information about the movement and its meetings, within one hour 10 of the 50 flyers remained on the walls displaying hateful messages like  “We don’t want Fags in El Colegio, go to El Sagrado”, “Gays, God hate you” and even Bible verses. Hate crimes are do happen on campus and this is an example.

    The murder of Jorge Steven shook the entire LGBT community; GAM’s opinion on the subject was “This is one of the most horrendous crimes of our time. It’s alarming that some people think he got what he was asking for and try to justify what was done. This just shows that homophobia still exists and we need to educate people more on the subject”.


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