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Karen Franklin

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A forensic psychologist, Karen Franklin's dual interests in psychology and the law brought her to question the roots of anti-gay hate crimes. Her interviews with perpetrators and with San Francisco Bay Area college students provide badly needed empirical data on the nature and extent of negative reactions to gays.
What makes a person become a gay-basher?

There's no simple answer to that question. In order to commit any kind of violent act, one has to have a propensity toward violence, probably engendered in childhood or early adult socialization. The choice of a gay target, in particular, can be based on a number of different motivation. . . . There were four over-arching motivations that most of the assaults could be boiled down to. The first one was peer dynamics, where people in groups often commit an act to prove something to peers, for example, to prove masculinity, or to prove heterosexuality, or just to not back down and let one's peers down. Camaraderie and friendship, those types of things. The next most common motivation that I found was what I called "anti-gay ideology." That's what most people people think of when they think of anti-gay crimes of bias--people who have some . . . ideological motive or agenda, either religious or moral, or some kind of disgust for homosexuality.

Do you have to necessarily have a lot of anti-gay beliefs to actually participate in a bashing incident?

Some people who participate have no more anti-gay animosity than most people who don't. I've found, in interviewing perpetrators, that some adamantly support gay civil rights, for example, which is a real surprise to a lot of people. But there are so many different reasons one can get caught up in an anti-gay crime. Peer dynamics is one factor. Also, without animosity, one could be thrill-seeking, which is more going out and trying to have a good time at somebody else's expense--often young people who feel socially alienated or powerless in their lives.

When you found that people had very negative feelings about gays, what were those feelings, and what were they based on?

They could be based on several different things, and they usually converge. Sometimes it was religious beliefs, or moral beliefs. Some assailants endorsed the idea that gay people spread AIDS. Some said that they had a feeling of disgust for gay people. In general, I think they're endorsing a cultural message that gay people are second-class citizens and not worthy of respect. . . .

Why choose to actually go where the victim is--to gay areas, to cruising areas, to bars? A lot of people have pointed out that, in violence against other minority groups, people don't tend to go where they are to harass them or abuse them.

It's not so much that the individuals harbor hatred .... there's a cultural backdrop in which it's really permissible, if not very cool, to  harass gays. There is the perception that homosexuals are a socially acceptable target. Repeatedly, when young people are asked, they will justify and defend targeting gay people as . . . There's a belief nowadays that it's not so cool to assault racial minorities. It's not so cool to assault women, or Jews. But assaulting gays is actually something humorous to a lot of young people. It's probably the last socially acceptable group to assault. Part of it is related to the fact that discrimination against gays is still legalized and encoded. That sends a message to young people that, if gays don't have equal rights in employment, housing, child custody, the military, or marriage, then there's something wrong with them, and nobody's going to mind if we have some fun at their expense. . . .

When you conducted your studies around the Bay area, did you find the sense that gays made socially acceptable targets?

I did. That was interesting, because the Bay area is a very progressive, liberal area, and I found strong endorsement for gay civil rights among my survey respondents. But I still found an overwhelming amount of anti-gay behaviors. Name-calling is especially very ubiquitous. About 70 percent of respondents said that their male friends had done name-calling. So, everybody knew people who targeted gays for at least name-calling, if not more physical acts. And again, it's not so much that the individuals harbor hatred and resentment. It's more that there's a cultural backdrop in which it's really permissible, if not very cool, to assault or harass gays. . . . One out of ten of the college students--and this is a non-criminal young adult population--said that they had either threatened or actually physically assaulted somebody they thought was a gay man or a lesbian.

One out of ten?

One out of ten. And another 24 percent reported name-calling. So more than a third reported some type of anti-gay behavior. I had no idea that was going to be that high. Among male respondents, it was even higher, about 50 percent. So, about half.

And this is in a really liberal area.

Right, exactly. And the other thing that surprised me was perceived self-defense popping up as an important factor. I had . . . no idea that they would say that it was the gay person's fault.

Tell me exactly what you mean by "perceived self-defense."

Most commonly, respondents said that they were defending themselves against sexual predation. When I analyzed my findings, my conclusion was that they were perceiving some kind of affront--most often, sexual, although not always--but flirtation or physical contact.

How did they describe the affront to you? What were they interpreting as advances?

I talked with a lot of the students afterwards in the group discussion setting. It was eye contact and body language, which are very subjective to interpret, right? One can jump to a lot of conclusions. Most of these kids had a stereotype of gays as sexual predators. So, if one has that stereotype, and then one sees somebody that one believes or knows to be gay, one's going to interpret what that person does as flirtation, or come-ons, or pickups. I think that's what was happening. The second part is, once there's the perceived flirtation, whether or not it's real, there's a belief that it's okay to respond physically, with a physical assault.

Why is that? Why is having a pass made at you permission to hit somebody?

Because of homophobia in our culture. That is a very, very firm belief, which individuals repeatedly would state to me verbally, and really emphatically, as if to say, "Well, don't you understand that this is necessary? It's not a choice on my part whether I hit this person. If they're going to come on to me, I have to hit them, because otherwise I'm a chump or a sissy, or I'm like a woman. I'm not standing up for myself." Young men said this to me, and they really believe this. I don't think that they're making this up. This is their mindset, that they are being victimized.

So if they perceive that a gay man is making a pass at them, they absolutely had to hit that person?

That's what they believe. . . . Because of mandatory norms about masculinity in our culture, and about heterosexuality, there's not any room for these young men to express anything other than very rigid gender norms, or to allow anybody else to do anything else in their presence.

What was the percentage of your respondents who agreed with that--that if someone made a pass at them, they'd have to assault them?

I asked non-assailants--about a third of the respondents and the majority were non-assailants--whether they would ever consider harassing or assaulting a gay man or a lesbian. About a third of those said that if they were flirted with or propositioned, they would. And these are non-assailants. . . . It's a really, really widespread cultural belief that if one is flirted with by a gay man or a lesbian, or propositioned, that justifies, if not makes necessary, a physical response. . . . I knew about those stereotypes in our culture, but I really didn't know how powerful they were. That surprised me. I think these types of crimes are going to continue until that cultural stereotype of the gay person--a sexual predator, a solely sexual being who's always on the prowl for victims--is somehow dispensed with.

What made you want to do this work, anyway?

I had read a lot about the topic. I worked in the past as a criminal investigator and as a private investigator, and I'd even worked on some of these cases, so I got to know people who had committed anti-gay crimes. I realized that the motivations were complex. At the same time, a lot of people who were doing research on "gay bashings" were making some assumptions about the motivation, based on their work with victims. Nobody had been talking directly to the perpetrators. I thought it would be important for somebody to look at perpetrators themselves, in order to understand what's driving them.

Is that a mistake that the media makes? We look at the Matthew Shepard case, or the Billy Jack Gaither case, and we immediately say, "Aha! It's all anti-gay feelings, and isn't this horrible"--like it's all sort of black-and-white?

Definitely. Some of these cases have such strong symbolism, like the Matthew Shepard case, that it's hard to get beyond that really stark black-and-white response, and to look at the subtleties of the young men who committed the crime--where they were coming from, what cultural messages they had taken in, where their lives were headed anyhow--irrespective of that particular crime. The main mistake is just focusing on these extreme, very heinous cases, and ignoring the everyday harassment that goes on nonstop all day long, every day, such as in the schools.

Why is it so bad in schools?

It's ubiquitous. It's everywhere, all the time. And it's extremely harmful. . . . The day-to-day things that go on in the schools are very harmful, psychologically, to young people, forcing them to quit school. A lot of drug and alcohol problems can be traced to that. There's suicide attempts and completed suicides by gay or lesbian youngsters, and by kids who are perceived as violating gender norms, whether or not they're really gay.

What does in mean, in plain language, to violate a gender norm?

It means there are very, very rigid rules, unspoken rules--and, in some cases, spoken rule--about what is okay for a boy or girl to do or say. They're imposed on children at a very young age, and children know these things. It's incorporated into their self-image from as early as kindergarten or first grade, I believe. Kids who don't fit in, whether they can't or they choose not to, are relentlessly tortured at this day-to-day level by their peers. And not much is telling the peers that it's not okay to be doing this kind of harassment.

In some of your work, you mentioned that the perpetrators felt like they were enforcing gender norms. What does that mean?

Perpetrators feel that they are entitled, if not expected, to help to punish people who are stepping out of bounds for their male role or their female role. In one example, I asked a young man why he had committed an anti-gay crime, and he said, "This man was wearing lipstick and high heels. What do you expect me to do?" Within his social circle, it was obvious that if you see a guy looking like that, you should kick him.

How do you answer that?

I kept trying to rephrase the question--but why? But why? And he just kept repeating a physical description of the victim, as if common sense would tell me that he had to do this. As I said earlier on, a person who doesn't come from a violent lifestyle may not attack that person physically, but they're certainly going to do the name-calling and the harassment, and let that person know that their behavior is not okay. . . .

How does your work in the non-criminal student population in a very liberal area connect with what you've seen from people who've actually been assailants?

There's a real strong connection. It's a kind of continuum. A law-abiding young adult, who's in college and wanting to succeed in their life, is not going to go out and, say, kill Matthew Shepard. But the attitudes may be similar. Indeed, some non-assailants told me that the reason that they didn't do these acts is because they didn't want to get caught, or they didn't want to catch AIDS. . . .

People actually said to you, "I would have done it if . . ."

One of my survey questions for non-assailants was, "What keeps you from doing these types of acts?" Some people said, "Well, belief in civil liberties; because it's morally wrong; because I'm a non-violent person." But a minority of the non-assailants also had not-so-positive reasons for restraint. You asked about the connection, and I think that's it. Obviously, more violent people are going to commit more violent acts. But the cultural norms that underlie these types of crimes are there for everybody. . . . So what can we do? It has to be more than targeting the people who commit the extreme acts. It has to be more a changing of the stereotype of gays as sexual predators, changing the idea that that kind of harassment in the schools is okay, and that it's just kids being kids, and it's not very harmful.

How about changing the notion of what masculinity is?

The primary motivation that I found was peer dynamics. Underlying that is the idea of proving one's masculinity to peers, oftentimes for young men. . . . In order to change from a boy to a man, one has to prove that one is masculine, and one way to do that is to assault gays. . . . A lot of people in the gay community feel that . . . gay-bashers are actually reacting because of their own internalized homosexuality that they're repressing. I did not find that to be the case for the majority of assailants. But it is the case, probably for a minority. . . .

What struck you the most about the similarities between the non-criminal population that you studied, and the criminal population? And what was the main difference between the two?

The similarity is that I don't think, just because a person commits a violent crime, that their attitudes and beliefs are necessarily that different from anybody else's in our culture. That's an important distinction that a lot of people don't understand. They think that the individual, let's say, who murdered Matthew Shepard, is definitely filled with hatred. It's probably more accurate to say that this is a person who's very socially marginalized, has lived a life of violence, and has a criminal history--someone who is basically taking the express train to the penitentiary. That's the similarity. . . The things that I found are so culturally predominant in our culture. It's not deviant psychology. It's social psychology. It's what the majority of young people believe. It's a mistake to focus on the big crimes, because the attitudes that allow those types of crimes may potentially be more helpfully dealt with at a different level. . . .

It's a mistake to always look elsewhere for causes and not look at what's close at hand.

Yes. As a matter of fact, when I was a teenager, I knew some young men who committed gay bashings. I knew, from knowing these young men, that they didn't have particularly extreme attitudes; they weren't members of any hate groups. They just were thinking of these behaviors as a lark, going out, drinking and having some fun. . . . They were likeable young men; people I could bring over to my parents' house and my parents would like them. Knowing that gave me a little bit of a heads-up on knowing that it's not all about hate--it's more complicated than that.


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