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LGBTQ people far more likely to be violent crime victims, study says

Fear of discrimination keeps many from reporting attacks. Florida experts call for more training in law enforcement.

In 2015, the death of 25-year-old India Clarke drew national attention and widespread criticism. Following the discovery of her body in a Tampa park, authorities and media alike used her name assigned at birth as opposed to her affirming name.

Clarke, a transgender woman, was homicide victim, according to authorities, and her death a stark example of the dangers that fall disproportionately on LGBTQ people.

As a group, they are nearly four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than non-LGBTQ people, according to a study released Friday by The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a think tank researching public policy on sexual orientation and gender identity.

India Clarke [Family photo]
India Clarke [Family photo]

In addition, the study found, LGBTQ people had higher rates of victimization in all types of violent crimes except robbery. They also were about six times more likely to experience violence by someone well-known to the victim, and more than two times more likely to experience violence by a stranger.

The study analyzed data from the 2017 National Crime Victimization Survey, which recently began to document the sexual orientation and gender identity of respondents aged 16 and older.

Among the findings: LGBTQ people experienced more than 70 victimizations per 1,000 people, compared to about 20 victimizations per 1,000 for people who are straight or cisgender, those whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.

The sources of the violence range from intimate partners and family members to strangers, Andrew Flores, the study’s lead author, said in an email. “Sexual orientation and gender identity are incredibly important to understanding victimization.”

In Florida, according to FBI data from 2018, 35 hate crimes were motivated by sexual orientation and five by gender identity. But experts say those numbers, the latest available from the bureau, don’t capture the full scope of LGBTQ crime victimization.

“That’s a severe undercount,” said Brendan Lantz, director of the Hate Crime Research and Policy Institute at Florida State University. In addition to LGBTQ people being victimized disproportionately, he said, the crimes against them tend to be more severe, involving serious assaults and injury.

And experts say the incidents are largely underreported to law enforcement.

According to the Williams Institute research, about half of all victimizations are not reported to police, and LGBTQ people were as likely as anyone to report violence.

However, the LGBTQ community faces unique barriers in reporting crimes to law enforcement, including fear of discrimination, their identity being outed, and re-traumatization, experts say.

Ráchael Powers
Ráchael Powers [ Courtesy of USF ]

“They often cite negative perceptions by the police as the reason for not reporting," said Ráchael Powers, an associate professor with the University of South Florida’s Department of Criminology. Powers says LGBTQ liaisons within police departments may help bridge the gap between the community and law enforcement.

In Tampa Bay, some jurisdictions have LGBTQ liaisons. The St. Petersburg Police Department has written policy and organized programming to increase awareness of the unique challenges facing the transgender community, said Lt. Markus Hughes, the department’s LGBTQ liaison.

Hughes says LGBTQ bias training is included within a four-hour session that covers a host of different forms of bias.

Related: New transgender policy and sensitivity training at St. Petersburg police timely after India Clarke murder

The Tampa Police Department has diversity and inclusion training almost annually, said Sgt. Robin Polk, the department’s LGBTQ liaison. But the focus of the programming varies, meaning some years pass without training that specifically addresses the needs of the LGBTQ community.

In both cities, safe space stickers placed near the entrance of local businesses mark locations where all victims — regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability or age — can seek help.

Experts are calling for more.

Across the state, “we need better training on the unique challenges that that population faces,” said Lantz of Florida State University.

Within the community, there’s variation in risk, said Powers. Transgender women of color — like India Clarke — face a particular risk of victimization because they have multiple marginalized identities, each with its own stereotypes. Race, gender and sexual orientation, among other factors, inform an individual’s risk of victimization.

“We need to pay more attention to how these statuses interact with each other,” Powers said.

Florida has a hate crime law, but it doesn’t include offenses based on gender or gender identity, said Jon Harris Maurer, the public policy director with Equality Florida. As a result, some individuals, including transgender women of color, are not accounted for under the law, making it difficult to access resources.

After a crime, victims face the additional burden of discrimination within the criminal justice system, said Brittany Hundley, community outreach director for The LIFE Center of the Suncoast, Inc., a Tampa-based counseling provider for grief and victims of trauma. This can include people in the system repeatedly referring to them by the wrong gender, or dead-naming them — using the birth name of a transgender or non-binary person without their consent.

As they try to move forward, victims, survivors and their families are left to pick up the shattered pieces of emotion, Hundley said.

Before receiving mental health counseling, she said, some people call community centers and self-disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to be sure centers will accept them.

Sometimes in those situations, Hundley says, she self-discloses to clients that she’s also a member of the LGBTQ community. And when she does, she can feel a sigh of relief on the other end.

It’s a fear of being rejected when victims are already vulnerable, she said. "Now we’ve got trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma.”

And the pain pours into the community.

“Hate crime radiates beyond the immediate victims,” said Powers of USF.

Members of the community who haven’t been victimized are affected by reading or hearing about violent crimes against those who share similar identities, she said. “It creates fear and vulnerability.”

This story was funded in part through a grant from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. Donors are not involved in the reporting or editing process.

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