When Is a Hate Crime Not a Hate Crime?
rom being physically harassed
in my middle-class New Jersey Catholic high school in the mid-1960s
to being assaulted in Boston’s outdoor cruising areas, I’ve
seen a lot of anti-gay harassment. The closest I’ve come to
deadly violence was on November 18, 1980. I had been standing in
front of the Ramrod bar in New York’s Greenwich Village as
several dozen men in leather jackets and jeans were chatting and
cruising, taking a break from the smoky bar. Soon I left for the
Mineshaft, another West Village club, noted for its rowdy Thursday
two-for-one night. Thirty minutes later, Ronald K. Crumpley fired
40 rounds from a semiautomatic rifle and two pistols into the cluster
of men outside the Ramrod, killing two and wounding six others.
Bartenders at the Mineshaft told us what had happened and urged
us to be careful since no one was certain there was only one shooter.
In the 1960s and 1970s, public expressions of homosexuality and
physical violence were so intricately bound together that, as a
community, we expected it. In this part of the world, in 2006, things
have changed for gay men. That is why the recent attack at Puzzles
Lounge in New Bedford, Massachusetts was truly shocking.
On Thursday, February 2, just after midnight, Jacob D. Robida, an
18-year-old high school dropout, entered Puzzles Lounge. After being
served two drinks, Robida asked if it was “a gay bar.”
When told that it was, he assaulted patrons with a handgun and a
hatchet, wounding three men, two seriously. He fled home, left a
note for his mother that apologized and expressed his love, but
added, “I have to go out by my means.” He then took her
car, picked up his ex-girlfriend Jennifer Bailey in West Virginia,
and drove to Arkansas where he shot and killed a part-time police
officer. After a 16-mile chase, Robida crashed his car and then
shot Bailey in the head before he shot himself. He died the following
According to news reports, when New Bedford police searched Robida’s
bedroom they found “homemade posters disparaging African-Americans
and Jews, neoNazi literature and skinhead paraphernalia,” as
well as an empty coffin.
The first response to the attacks—by police, the media, and
spokespeople for gay groups—was that this was a “hate
crime” that specifically targeted homosexuals. Although Bristol
District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. has stated that Robida seemed
to have no connections to any known groups that promoted anti-Semitic,
racist, or anti-gay ideology, filling one’s bedroom with Nazi
regalia suggests at least a serious predisposition to social malignity.
After the attacks, the media reached out to national gay spokespeople
such as Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and
Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), who stated that “the hatred and
loathing fueling” the New Bedford attacks “is not innate,
it is learned” from the likes of James Dobson of Focus on the
Family, Reverend Pat Robertson, and others on the Christian right
who are “obsessed with homosexuality.” Clarence Patton,
the acting executive director of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence
Programs, argued that such violence was a reaction to queer political
organizing: “It happened in Massachusetts during the fight
to secure same-sex marriage rights, it happened in San Francisco
for the same reasons.” Neil G. Giuliano, president of the Gay
and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), saw the New Bedford
incident as an attack on the entire gay community: “This act
of defamation highlights the need for all of us to do what we can
to combat the hatred and bigotry our community still faces.”
Over the past three decades we have created the term “hate
crime”—a violent, or sometimes simply verbal, expression
of vehement and vicious dislike for a specific group. We have a
federal law that adds extra sentencing penalties to crimes that
target people because of race, religion, and nationality; 22 states
include sexual orientation as a protected category. There has been
a decade-long fight by gay rights groups to include sexual orientation
in the federal law, although there is almost no evidence that these
laws function as a deterrent. Up until last May, the ACLU had opposed
federal legislation for fear that it would interfere with protected
free speech. Other civil liberty groups argue that hate crime legislation
is discriminatory and selective in the categories they protect.
For instance, vigilantism against suspected or convicted criminals—say
sex offenders—would not be a hate crime.
Interestingly, gender, despite the struggle by many feminist groups
to become a protected classification in many states, is almost never
used in cases of rape or domestic violence. If it were, rape could
be classified as a hate crime directed specifically against women
and the criminal penalties for rape and sexual assault—almost
all against men—would increase tremendously.
But the biggest problem with hate-crime legislation is that it is
predicated on the idea that physical and verbal attacks against
protected groups are all fueled by ideological animus. The reality
is that not all violence against gay people is, by its nature, homophobic
or ideologically hateful. Matt Foreman’s blaming Pat Robertson
and his cohorts for the Puzzles Lounge attacks feels wildly off-base.
Such easy connections between words and actions are not only difficult
to prove but often specious and selectively constructed. People
may argue that there was a particular animus against homosexuals
in this case. After all, when Robida went into Puzzles Lounge that
Thursday night he asked if it was a gay bar. But given that we now
know that Robida was on a suicide trip, Puzzles Lounge may well
have been the easiest available outlet for his hate-filled emotions.
reality is that U.S. culture is violent. This is a terrible but
unavoidable fact. Equally terrible is that the people who are often
subjected to this hatred are those in marginalized groups. But by
assuming that all crimes against gay people—or ethnic, racial,
or religious groups—are based on a specific, easily identified,
ideological “hate,” we are making a political decision
not to examine them in their context and totality.
Robida was a poor, high-school dropout living in an economically
devastated city. The
reported that New Bedford
social services investigated complaints that he was neglected. He
lived alone with his mother who was blind and physically disabled,
confined to a wheelchair. News reports quote Robida’s friends—including
lesbians—who claim he never said anything negative about homosexuals.
While people should be held responsible for their actions, if we
are going to deal effectively with this kind of violence, we are
going to have to understand it better in all its manifestations.
The case of Jacob Robida raises questions about not only how we
look at—and classify—violence, but also how we deal with
it legally. Hate crime legislation is intended to deter crimes against
specific groups of people by adding extra prison time—usually
called “penalty enhancement”—to their sentences for
the “intent” to harm people based on ideological animus.
Like all laws they are imperfect. It is not clear if Robida would
have been tried under hate crime legislation since he never vocalized
a specific animus against homosexuals at the time of the crime (or
elsewhere in his life, on-line, or in the personal effects in his
room). It is clear that hate crime laws did not deter Robida from
his violent attack and if he had gone to prison for these actions
he probably would have been denied the basic mental health care
Did Jacob Robida commit a hate crime? We will never know. Ronald
K. Crumpley was the son of a conservative Baptist Christian minister.
After the 1980 shootings, many gay groups blamed his family’s
religious beliefs for his actions. He was later found to be mentally
ill, is still considered dangerous, and is confined to a New York
state psychiatric ward. Twenty-five years ago I would have agreed
with gay groups and the media that what Crumpley did was a classic
hate crime. But as horrifying and deadly as it was, I am not sure
I would say that now.
Bronski is the author of
Pulp Friction: Uncovering the
Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps
(St. Martin’s Press, 2004).