LGBT community responds to hate crime with peaceful Hug-In

By Stephanie Benhart

Just after 1 a.m. April 12, a man screaming derogatory names at a group of students walking down Green Street attacked University student Steven Velasquez.

Velasquez, sophomore in Business, said the man screamed “faggot,” assuming he and a friend walking together with two other students were members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

They continued walking and Velasquez asked, “Why does he have to be like that?”

The man then grabbed Velasquez and shoved him to the ground, which knocked him unconscious.

Incidents like these are classified as hate crimes or bias incidents, said Kaamilyah Abdullah-Span, assistant dean of students. A bias incident is motivated by membership in a particular group, whether it is ethnic, racial or sexual orientation-based, but is not punishable by law.

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Hate crimes are motivated by a person’s bias, but fall into criminal categories, she said.

“I found myself emotionally disturbed that someone I never met was willing to go out of their way to hurt me for being gay,” Velasquez said in an e-mail.

In response to the most recent attack, a Hug-In was held along Green Street on Friday night, sponsored by Pride and the Office of LGBT affairs. The Hug-In featured LGBT community students and their allies offering free hugs to anyone walking on Green Street. They were also handing out cookies, flowers, Hershey’s hugs and kisses and handbills with hate crime information.

“I felt compelled to do something (after the attack),” said coordinator Lou Perry, senior in LAS. “And I wanted to do something peaceful.”

Despite the poor weather, she said she was pleased with the turnout and said she hopes to do it again next year.

Abdullah-Span started collecting data of reported incidents of bias on campus as part of the tolerance program she began in spring 2006. Since then, 24 incidents related to sexual orientation bias have been reported, she said.

“These are only a fraction of the number of incidents that occur,” she said, adding it is unknown how many incidents go unreported.

She said the program is still in its developing stages and is focused on encouraging the community to report incidents.

“It’s been increasing, but I can’t say more incidents are occurring,” she said.

In the FBI’s most recent “Crime in the United States” report from 2006, 15.5 percent of the 7,720 total reported single-bias incidents were caused by sexual orientation bias.

Curt McKay, director of the LGBT center on campus, said these kinds of attacks often go unreported if the victims are ashamed of their orientation, do not want the publicity or have not yet shared their sexual orientation. He said some members of the LGBT community may feel shame and a need to hide in society.

Former student body president Justin Randall, said he was surprised to hear about the recent attack and even more surprised it was because of sexual orientation.

“In my four years here, this is the first attack I’ve heard of,” he said.

He said this event has made students, including those not in the LGBT community, re-evaluate their situations.

“It’s caused people to be aware in public and more aware of their surroundings,” he said.

Amy Snyder, sophomore in LAS and friend of Velasquez, said this attack goes beyond one person and affects all members of the LGBT community. She said other members of the LGBT community were shaken because many share this fear.

“It is important people know what happened. Some people think discrimination against LGBT is dead, but it’s not,” she said.

Gary Yen, graduate student and president of Pride, a LGBT student organization, said he thinks people are aware incidents like this happen, but do not feel the full effect until it happens so close.