Monday, July 29, 2013

Hate Crime Statistics

My dissertation was about the impact of heteronormativity (a.k.a. societal homophobia) on suicide rates. Well, really it was about how to measure local variation in heteronormativity, and suicide happened to be an convenient health outcome: it's a "hard end-point" meaning that it is captured with little error, it's assessed pretty much the same way everywhere across the country and over time, and it's probably related to heteronormative societal attitudes.
One of the first ideas I had about how to measure local variation in heteronormativity was to look at hate crimes statistics. The logic is that hate crimes are a direct and extreme expression of heteronormativity. The FBI issues a report every year documenting the number of crimes reported as being bias-motivated, and also where they happen and against whom the violence is targeted.
But a strange thing happened when I looked at the data - there were a fair number of bias-motivated crimes reported from San Francisco and New York City, and virtually none from the places I expected to be havens of homophobia. The most likely explanation is that the number of hate crimes reported is a lousy measure of the number of hate crimes committed, and is a better measure of the degree to which a person reporting a hate crime to the police is taken seriously. So, in a way, hate crimes reporting may be a decent measure of heteronormativity, but in the opposite direction of what you'd expect at first: the more hate crimes reported, the friendlier the social environment is for TBLG people.
But, it gets more complicated. There are two ways not to have much conflict between dominant and subordinate groups. One way is for everyone to get along. Another way is for the subordinate group to "mind its manners" and steer clear of offending the sensibilities of the dominant group. So even if the incidence of hate crimes were a good measure of homophobia, it would be complicated because you'd expect the number of crimes to be low in areas where gay people have learned that the best thing to do is stay deeply closeted, or to get out of Dodge. And even though areas that are "gay meccas" allow us to express ourselves more freely, this can incite hardened haters in our midst to violence, like Dan White. "Gay meccas" can also attract hardened haters with violent intentions, and thus one often sees violent hate crimes centered around gay bars and cruising areas.

Anyway, it had been over ten years since I looked at the hate crimes data, and a lot happened since then. So I was curious to see what has changed.
Not as much as I expected. There are more and more local and state police forces reporting hate crimes to the FBI, but the number of reported hate crimes hasn't changed much, except for a spike in 2001 related to the violent backlash against Arabs and Muslims. If anything, there's a downward trend when you take the growing population into account (which I have not done in these graphs).

I have to admit, I'm intrigued by data like this. I don't know what story they are telling. I anticipated that with the rapid change in societal attitudes about homosexuality, we'd see a steady growth in the number of reported anti-gay hate crimes. But, as you can see in the graph below, the number of reported anti-gay hate crimes rose pretty steadily until 2001, and has pretty much leveled off since then.

So maybe that's a good sign - of increasing tolerance, acceptance, and even celebration breaking out in some corners of the country. But it could mean a lot of things, and when you dig down into where these anti-BLG crimes are being reported from, it's still predominantly from the gay meccas - large coastal cities and also university towns all across the country. I suspect that there are lots of anti-gay crimes not being reported at all, especially in rural areas and the South.
Maybe the peak in 2001 highlights a shift in the attention of bigots, towards a new bogeyman. There's certainly plenty of evidence that anti-Arab (much of the darker orange slice in the graph below), and anti-Muslim (the bright green slice in the next graph down) spiked hard in 2001, and there has been a sustained increase in anti-Islamic crimes since then compared to the 1990's. But I think the idea of bigots turning away from the gays and towards the Muslims is at best a partial story. Also of interest to note in the graph below is that the number of anti-Black crimes reported by the FBI was definitely lower in the first two years of the Obama administration. Evidence of a post-racial America? I strongly doubt it - although the post-racial narrative might explain it if one considers that some of the more "post-racist" (emphasis on racist) police may be harder to convince that a bias-motivated crime has occurred, and thus less likely to report it as such. It would certainly be interesting to look at those trends in the wake of the 2010 retrenchment election.

 So, another interesting thing to note in the graph above, is the absolutely tiny number of hate crimes motivated by anti-atheist sentiments. As a hard-core aptheist myself, I find it hard to believe that there are so few anti-atheist hate crimes reported. Maybe it's an issue of confusion - how do you classify a religiously-motivated attack when the recipient professes no religion? But I suspect another possible explanation, that theist (after taking the double negative out of "anti-atheist") biases are so entrenched that it is hard for police to see theist motivated crimes as bias-motivated, and therefore not report them as such.

Another interesting twist to the tospy-turvy  world of hate crimes reporting is the biases for which no reporting category is even available. There were no crimes reported as being motivated by ablism before 1997. It's not that a glorious heyday of equanimity passed in 1996, but rather that there was simply no category available even to describe these bias motivations in the FBI's system. Even today (or at least up to 2010), the number of crimes reported as being directed by ablist biases numbers in the dozens per year, across the entire country. So here's another example indicating that the nature of the bias itself prevents it from being recognized and recorded.
So, that seems like a pretty exhaustive list: crimes motivated by bias on the basis of race, ethnicity, religious preference, sexual orientation, and ability. Or does it? Notice that there's simply no category to record crimes motivated by bias against transgender people yet, or intersex, or even bias against women. I wouldn't be surprised if the number of reported hate crimes would double if rapes motivated by misogyny were reported as such.
Also, in a nation where most sources of intolerance are weakening, intolerance against fat people is on the rise. Plug for a great article on anti-fat bias and media portrayals of disembodied depersonalized fatness.

I have to admit, I'm pretty ambivalent about organizing around hate crimes as a means to end prejudice. It's not for lack of trying. As my time with ActUp/RI wound down, I turned to advocacy around hate crimes - even made myself into a bit of a spokesmodel in the wake of being beaten about the head on Thayer Street in Providence (that's me standing and gesturing to another victim in that attack). I got involved in training a few police departments in Rhode Island, but I found that re-hashing my story as a hate crime "victim" was a source of re-victimization, and left me feeling dis-empowered and alienated, especially after some of the more intense police training sessions.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Allowing Gay Blood Would Increase Safety

The FDA still maintains a lifetime ban on gay and bisexual male blood donors. It is tempting to see this ban as overt homophobia, although I'd like to think that the decision-making body at the FDA has some other rationale in mind, at least in part.
They claim is that the ban increases the safety of the blood supply.

And so we have the ideal set-up, pitting "Safety" against "Homophobia". A battle between Rights, with Science judging the fight.

Is a lifetime ban on gay blood donors safer than allowing gay blood donors to give without restriction? Sure, but that's not an alternative that anyone is advocating for.

Some advocates for changing the policy deferring gay/bi male donors claim that all the blood is tested anyway, so we don't need the ban.
All the blood is tested for HIV, but there are cases where the blood tests negative even though it is infected, and one of those circumstances can be when a person has just been infected, and often the blood is highly infectious during that "window period". So, it is judicious to reject gay/bisexual donors who might have been infected recently. I think the best solution there would be to apply the same criteria used to defer anyone else who might have been infected recently, to say you can't donate for a year after sex with another man, even with a condom.
I've heard two logical arguments for why to exclude gay and bisexual men from donating blood for longer than a one year window - one is that there are extremely rare cases where an established HIV infection would still test negative, and the other is that the blood is tested only for those viruses that are pretty common and that they have good tests for - it isn't possible to test for everything, certainly not things we don't even know exist yet. I think both of these arguments from the side of "Safety" are compelling, but they don't operate in a vacuum.

Nobody is arguing for gay and bisexual men to be able to donate without restriction, so the question is what restriction will maximize "Safety" while reducing the role of "Homophobia" in making blood donor deferral policy? Often this is portrayed as though it is a balancing act, where every reduction in homophobia compromises safety.

But there are good reasons to think that reducing the role of homophobia in blood donor deferral policy would actually increase safety. Notwithstanding all the discussion about "window periods" and emerging infections and so on, there are three important phenomenon going on related to how people respond to a deferral policy that reeks of homophobia. How do people react when confronted with a policy that sounds, smells, and tastes like prejudice?

Frankly, some people are comforted by it. I'm sure there are lots of people who feel like the blood supply is safer because they believe gay and bisexual donors are excluded from it. They may make my stomach churn, but they don't make much difference in my argument.

Most gay and bisexual men are revolted by the policy, and as a result wouldn't touch blood donation with a ten foot needle. Again, not relevant to my argument.

Some gay and bisexual men, however, have learned that the easiest way to negotiate homophobia is to lay low. Keep your voice down and your wrists locked in position. Where this presents a problem is that given the choice between potentially outing oneself or deflecting the question about whether you've had 'sex with another man, even once', some men who should be deferred just slip past the question using the same techniques they've learned in dealing with other homophobic situations. Changing the policy so that it doesn't reflect homophobia (say by changing the deferral criteria to be the same as other HIV risk factors) would actually make the blood supply safer in regards to this group.

The second group I'm thinking of is predominantly heterosexual, but really could potentially include any donor. By including a deferral policy that sounds, smells, and tastes like rank homophobia, it "cheapens" the validity of other deferral policies, leading to people being less careful answering them. What I mean is that when the basis of one deferral policy is so obviously shaky, some potential donors will think that the other criteria (such as which drugs you've taken recently, or travel history) are also not strongly based in the need to keep the blood supply safe, and may be "encouraged" to give a less than honest answer, especially if they feel any social pressure to donate.

The third group I'm concerned about are the people who don't start giving blood at all. And the blood banks are worried about them too. Lots of people become regular donors for life after getting started in high school and college. But young people these days are especially sensitive to the acrid stench of homophobia. So by maintaining this policy that sounds, smells, and tastes like homophobia, the FDA is turning potential donors away in droves. Potential donors who are at very low risk for HIV and other blood-borne pathogens. Potential donors who otherwise would be likely to save dozens of lives over the coming years. There have even been organized efforts to keep blood drives off campuses until the policy changes.

The most dangerous pint of blood is the one that's not there when you need it.

Dear FDA, it's time to bring your deferral policy into the 1990's. Dump the homophobia and increase the safety of the blood supply.