Homosexuals Say They’re Threatened By ‘Gay Bashing’
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Beaten by a roaming pack of thugs out for a summer’s ″night of outrage,″ his head bounced off a curb, John Dennis O’Connell died 10 days later.
He was attacked because he was a homosexual.
Such unprovoked assaults, sometimes called ″gay bashing,″ have long been a form of homosexual harassment in towns and cities where sizeable gay populations draw attention.
But in San Francisco, with a reputation as a homosexual haven and an estimated gay population of 15 percent of 700,000 people, some say attacks are rising, despite efforts by gay advocates and police to put the bashers behind bars.
Paul Seidler, the police department’s liaison officer with the gay community, said the attackers are most often out-of-town toughs who come to the city expressly to hunt homosexuals or city residents resentful of homosexuals sharing their neighborhoods and public transportation.
The latest twist, Seidler said, is attacks by youths who claim homosexuals are exposing them to AIDS, the deadly disease that most commonly strikes gay men.
″One of the things you think about every single day when you walk outside of your house is that you could be a victim of an assault based on your sexual orientation - it’s drilled in,″ said Randy Schell, a counselor with Community United Against Violence, a neighborhood group in the largely gay Castro Street area.
″It all goes back to the old concept that gay people are weak and they’re inferior and they’re not going to try to protect themselves and they’re real easy victims,″ he said.
That concept is changing even as the number of attacks continues to rise, said Schell; more and more homosexuals are fighting back when attacked or are prosecuting their attackers.
″They are far more willing now to take it through the system,″ Schell said. ″And they’re not afraid to take on the system when the system won’t do anything. I think you’re finding a district attorney and a police department that are dealing with angry people, righteously angry people.′
The beating death of O’Connell, a gay activist, focused unusual public attention on the problem. Four men received prison sentences for their actions in what Assistant District Attorney William Fazio called a ″homophobic rage.″
Fazio said some lawyers thought the O’Connell case was blown out of proportion because of pressure from the gay community, which hailed the sentences as a victory.
″I tried not to make this a strict gay-straight issue,″ he said. ″They (the defendants) singled out an identifiable group of people and be the people homosexual, black, Jewish, some ethnic minority or something like that makes no difference. They singled him out and they assaulted him exclusively for that reason.″
Timothy White, now 23, and David Rogers, Donnie Clanton and Doug Barr, all 21, had driven 40 miles to San Francisco from their homes in Vallejo on July 29, 1984, with the expressed intent of ″gay bashing,″ Fazio said. Witnesses testified hearing Rogers say, ″Let’s go beat up some faggots.″
When they spotted O’Connell walking with another man, the four swooped down, shouting insults. Testimony showed Rogers and White punched O’Connell in the face. As the 40-year-old man fell to the ground, his head struck a curb. The cause of death was a severe concussion.
″The defendants ran laughing from the scene down the block and continued to beat up other people through the course of the evening,″ Fazio said.
The group attacked three other men they believed to be homosexuals. Two escaped serious injury, but the third was punched to the ground and kicked by all four defendants. He required 12 stitches in his face and suffered bruised ribs.
On Jan. 9, Superior Court Judge Edward Stern sentenced White, Rogers and Clanton to 15 years to life in prison for the second-degree murder of O’Connell. Fazio said that although Clanton had not struck O’Connell, he was convicted as the ″catalyst″ who egged the others on by rushing toward O’Connell and urging them to hit him.
For the other attacks, each of the four was sentenced to seven years in prison.
″We are dealing with a whole night of outrage,″ the judge said.
Such outrages have occurred before with less publicity, said Schell, who estimated he has counseled 2,000 victims of physical and verbal assaults in the past six years. Schell himself was attacked in 1980, punched by an assailant and injured when his head struck a lamppost.
″I have seen sexual assaults against men where crowbars and bottles have been used ... and severe physical damage was done,″ he said. ″A baseball bat across the head, just everything.″
Carmen Vazquez, who keeps statistics for CUAV, said 237 attacks were reported to the agency in the first nine months of 1985, a 59 percent increase over the 149 reported in the same period in 1984.
Vazquez noted that many other victims never report such assaults.
″When people suffer an attack, there’s a lot of fear and embarrassment,″ she said. ″A lot of people fear for their jobs or for their relationships with their family or other people.″
Lt. Frank Reed said the police department kept no numbers for attacks on homosexuals but said they were a small percentage of the city’s total assaults, which numbered 12,000 in 1985.
Seidler said the assaults had ″become even more prevalent since the AIDS epidemic.″ He and Schell said many victims reported that their assailants mentioned the disease in shouted insults.
Schell described a ″heartbreaking″ case in which an AIDS victim was accosted on a bus by youths who called him ″a diseased faggot.″
″They beat him to a literal pulp,″ he said, adding that the man died from AIDS a short time later.
CUAV, financed by the city and through grants, is trying to stop the attacks through education and advocacy.
The agency sends speakers to school and civic assemblies to talk about the gay community and teaches homosexuals how to protect themselves, said Vazquez.
In addition, she said, ″We go to the press, we go to hearings and we harass City Hall, whatever is necessary to bring the issue to the public’s attention and to demand that something be done about it.″
Many victims join the effort after receiving counseling, Schell said.
″When they first come to us, they generally are sort of resigned to the fact that the act of violence is sort of an extension of the homophobia they have experienced all their lives,″ he said.
″However, when they begin to understand there is something that can be done about it within the system, I see an anger come through. ... They are standing up. They are fighting back. They are saying, ’I am not weak and inferior and you’re not going to do this to me anymore.‴