Prevalence of Antigay Aggression among a College Sample

Karen Franklin, Ph.D.
The Washington Institute for Mental Illness Research and Training
University of Washington

One of the most socially acceptable-and probably the most widespread-forms of hate crime among teenagers and young adults is crime targeting sexual minorities. Indeed, the rate of antigay violence among otherwise non-criminal young adults is truly alarming.

Prevalence of Antigay Aggression Among a College Sample

In a study by Dr. Karen Franklin of approximately 500 young adults in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, one in ten respondents admitted physical violence or threats against people they believed were homosexual. Another 24% reported antigay name-calling. Among male respondents 18% admitted perpetrating physical violence or threats, and 32% admitted name-calling. In other words, half of all young men admitted some form of antigay aggression. Furthermore, three in ten people who had not admitted to antigay aggression reported a likelihood to do so if a homosexual flirted with or propositioned them. These findings illustrate a widespread cultural permission to engage in violence based on homosexual innuendo.

Perpetrator Motivations

Four distinct motivations were found in bias crimes against sexual minorities. These are Self-Defense, Ideology, Thrill Seeking, and Peer Dynamics.

Self-Defense assailants typically claim they were responding to aggressive sexual propositions. Rather than fabricating these accounts of homosexual aggression, these assailants appear to interpret their victims' words and actions based on their belief that homosexuals are sexual predators.

In contrast, Ideology assailants report that they assaulted gay men and lesbians because of their negative beliefs and attitudes about homosexuality. These assailants view themselves as social norm enforcers who are punishing moral transgressions. They object not so much to homosexuality itself but to visible challenges to gender norms, such as male effeminacy or public flaunting of sexual deviance. The other two motivations, Thrill Seeking and Peer Dynamics, both stem from adolescent developmental needs.

Thrill Seekers commit assaults to alleviate boredom, to have fun and excitement, and to feel strong.

Peer Dynamics assailants commit assaults in order to prove their toughness and heterosexuality to friends. Both Thrill Seekers and Peer Dynamics assailants minimize their personal antagonism toward homosexuals, and either blame their friends for assaults or minimize the level of harm done.

Implications for Prevention

Research into hate crimes motivations and perpetration rates suggests that animosity toward a minority group does not in and of itself predict hate crimes. Rather, a certain degree of antigay name-calling and social ostracism is the cultural norm among young Americans, with more extreme violence committed, not surprisingly, by the more violent fringe. To intervene successfully, we must realize that the values underlying hate crimes are instilled at an early age and are reinforced in-group environments such as schools.

Stereotypes and Intolerance

School children across the nation engage in pervasive harassment and violence against students perceived as gender-deviant. Antigay slurs target non-aggressive boys, tomboyish girls, children with lesbian or gay parents, and even children who befriend these youngsters. The research of Dr. Franklin suggests that the majority of young people who harass, bully, and assault sexual minorities do not fit the stereotype of the hate-filled extremist. Rather, they are average young people who often do not see anything wrong with their behavior. In the absence of positive images of homosexuality in school curricula, negative stereotypes flourish. These stereotypes, in turn, foster both violence within the schools and hate crimes in the community at large.

Given the climate of hostility toward gender deviance within our nation's schools, what we legally define as hate crimes are only the extreme end of a continuum. Rather than focusing only on these extreme cases, it is imperative to confront the cultural climate that fosters everyday harassment and denigration of anyone who is perceived as different.

Educational Initiatives. Protection of society's most vulnerable members-that is, children-needs to become a central tenet of hate crime prevention efforts. What is needed is multi-tiered training that involves not only school children but also school board members, school administrators and teachers. Teachers must be trained in how to respond appropriately when they see abuse occurring in the classroom or on the playground. And they have to know that they will have the backing of administrators and school board members when they intervene. Anti-bias curricula must be introduced as early as kindergarten and must continue through high school.

In the long run, effective hate crime prevention must focus on promoting tolerance and an appreciation of diversity among school children. As long as the schools are breeding grounds for intolerance and abuse, hate crimes will continue. Children will continue to verbally and physically harass their sexual minority peers until the educational climate becomes such that teachers are empowered to stand up and very directly teach that this behavior is wrong.