Joseph Baken, the man who lied about being assaulted at the Mo Club on a recent weekend for being gay, should meet my friend Nathan – who actually was verbally and physically attacked at the Mo club for being gay, in 2001, and had his nose broken. Back then, no one seemed to care. There was no advocacy, no demonstrations, no outrage, no support. Nothing. In fact, he had to pay a $100 fine for disorderly conduct. The guy who beat him up paid $150.
When Nathan heard about Baken getting beat up, and how thousands of people all over the nation rallied in support, it evoked a lot of strong emotions. “Now, finding out he is a fraud, I can’t describe what this makes me feel,” Nathan says. “He didn’t personally do anything to me, but this feels so personal. So very, very sad.”
Nathan’s not the only one. Baken – who is growing up in more acceptant times thanks to many activists who often suffered and paved the way before him – assaulted the entire gay community and its allies by making a mockery of hate crimes and toying with very deep, real emotions, fears, thoughts, feelings and experiences. His claims were so believable precisely because they were believable. Thousands of concerned people rapidly rallied and responded to a very plausible false alarm.
The good news: A man was not actually beaten up at the Mo Club for being gay on that recent weekend. And the fact that so many good-hearted, well-intentioned people responded in such a quick, sympathetic and peaceful manner is a good thing. It’s also refreshing that more and more people seem to understand hate crimes and the need to add sexual orientation to Montana’s “bias crimes” laws.
When anyone gets beaten up, it’s terribly tragic. But when someone is targeted and beaten up specifically because of the way they were born and for who they are, it’s not only terrible and tragic, but it is a form of terrorism – targeting a segment of society, putting fear in people who belong to that targeted segment of society, making many people who belong to that targeted segment of society fearful to go out and, in many cases, making them want to hide or even suppress who they are – which all brings with it a lot of emotional and social implications that go pretty deep and are widely spread.
Jamee Greer of the Montana Human Rights Network is right on when he says bias crimes are about more than just the person who is at the end of an assailant’s fist. “They are about all of us. They are about silencing us, about intimidating us – about sending a message that we are not welcome in our own communities,” he says. “They try to send the message that we are an ’other’ wholly undeserving of not just basic legal protections like marriage rights or non-discrimination in the workplace – but not even the right to immediate personal safety and physical security for ourselves and those we love. They are about hate and fear and terrorism.“
According to the U.S. government, hate crimes rose 13 percent in 2010, and there is an annual average of 191,000 hate crimes each year with 18 percent of those committed against gays and lesbians. And since we gays and lesbians make up a small percentage of our population, crimes against us are six times higher than the overall rate. Young people are affected, perhaps more so. Nine out of 10 gay and lesbian teens report being bullied because of their sexual orientation. Gay teens are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other teens, five times more likely to miss school out of fear, and 28 percent do, indeed, drop out. Last year an 18-year-old Texas man was slain by a classmate for being gay, and a 24-year old Florida lesbian was killed by her girlfriend’s father.
Baken’s mockery of hate crimes only cost him $300 and a suspended jail sentence. Perhaps he should also be made to face real victims and volunteer for organizations fighting for equality.
In the meantime, the positive reaction of Missoula citizens proves that love can, indeed, conquer hate – and that gay people are not going to live in fear, hide or be suppressed by bigotry and violence. And hopefully Montana will soon include sexual orientation to its “biased crime” laws as it should have done long ago.
David Stalling is a writer and activist who lives in Missoula.