What makes a person become a gay-basher?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.