As Capitol Hill deweirds, LGBTQ hate crime takes off

Doug Hamilton wasn’t alone in a dark alley when he was attacked on Capitol Hill last year.

Last July, he was walking with two female friends when a stranger, who had repeatedly asked the trio intrusive questions about their sexual orientations, punched him in the chest and underneath the chin.

When Hamilton, a 52-year-old gay man, was knocked to the ground at the corner of Minor and Pike, sustaining a concussion, it was still light outside.

The next day, while waiting for a light to change, he started having a seizure. He was standing just across the street from the Capitol Hill apartment building he’s called home for the past 13 years.

Hamilton didn’t speak out about the experience at the time, even though he was involved with LGBTQ advocacy group Equal Rights Washington. He didn't want other people or the press to know that he was a hate-crime victim.

“It was too personal,” he says.

It turns out he's not alone. There is strong anecdotal evidence that anti-LGBTQ violence is rising in Capitol Hill, Seattle’s historically gay neighborhood.

Aleksa Manila, a local drag queen and counselor, was at Neighbours Nightclub last New Year’s Eve when she heard a fire alarm go off. She and her boyfriend were among the last to leave that night, the dance floor wet from sprinklers. She assumed the alarm was accidental, caused by someone’s tipsiness.

It wasn't until her phone was flooded with media phone calls the next day that she realized the bizarre end to the evening’s jubilations was an attempted arson; a gallon tank of gas deliberately spilled on a carpeted staircase that jeopardized the lives of the more than 700 people celebrating in Capitol Hill’s historic gay nightclub.

In June, Dwone Anderson-Young and Ahmed Said, two young gay men, joined a growing list of LGBTQ victims when the pair were shot and killed in the Central District. They had spent the night dancing at RPlace, another popular Capitol Hill gay bar where they were regulars.

RPlace security guard Martine Saphiloff, a mother of four kids, remembers catching the boys trying to sneak in with fake IDs. “This still ain’t you,” she would scold, handing a fake back.

But when the two finally came of age, they never caused problems. “They were just here to dance,” Saphiloff said. “For them to end the way they ended; it was traumatic.”

Then there are the incidents that don’t make headlines. Members of the LGBTQ community, for example, say verbal harassment on the streets and in Capitol Hill bars has gotten worse too in the last year.

“I used to hear dyke and fag once every couple of months [in bars] — now I hear it nightly,” says Neighbours spokesperson, Shaun Knittel.

Local drag queen Jessica Paradisco says that, in the last year, it’s become common for his LGBTQ friends to be verbally harassed through car windows while walking on the Hill at night — even windows that belong to cab drivers. Paradisco says that cabbies have hit on, tried to unfasten their pants or masturbated while driving he and his friends home.

These days, he walks home on well-lit streets like Broadway — usually with other people — avoiding places that can be dangerous after dark, like Cal Anderson Park.

Across Seattle, the latest FBI data shows a strong increase in LGBTQ hate-crimes: Between 2011 and 2012, the number reported jumped from 6 to 19.

A recent Seattle Times piece used this data to claim that Seattle had the third-highest rate of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes among large U.S. cities in 2012 — even though the FBI actually discourages using their data alone to derive rankings and conclusions about national trends.

Their statistics, they explain, are based on voluntary reporting by local law enforcement agencies, the efforts of which can vary from city to city. What’s more, the large majority of agencies (86.7 percent) choose not to report hate crimes at all, according to the latest National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report.

Within Capitol Hill itself, statistics are even murkier. The Seattle Police Department doesn't publicly release data about hate crimes by precinct and a request for that information went unanswered as of press time. (Capitol Hill is part of the East precinct, which also includes the Central District, First Hill, Madison Park and Montlake.)

That same NCAVP report notes that many other LGBTQ hate crimes go unreported altogether because victims are afraid of revenge from the offender or ostracism by the police. Last year, NCAVP writes, only 45 percent of anti-LGBTQ violence survivors reported their incidents to the police,

“In the black community, it’s called the no snitch law,” explains Neighbours spokesperson Knittel. “There’s actually a saying, ‘Snitches get stitches.’”

When a member of the LGBTQ community does report a crime, it can be difficult to determine whether discrimination was the motivation behind it. There are blurry lines — words like “faggot”, which has become common slang among some communities, do not always signify a hate crime. 

Knittel explains that straight men too have been called “faggots” during attacks. Sometimes, he says, people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Seattle Police Department Detective Drew Fowler is one of the first to tell you that the increase in reported Seattle hate crimes doesn’t necessarily mean that there have actually been more of them. He believes it might actually mean that the SPD’s new approach to LGBTQ community outreach is working.

Every three months, the SPD’s East Precinct, the Washington State Liquor Control Board and the Head of Security for Seattle Central Community College hold an open dialogue with Capitol Hill nightclub employees, where attendees discuss safety concerns and patrolling needs for upcoming events. 

The meetings have created stronger community between the Hill’s police and nightlife communities. When SPD officers drive by RPlace now, Saphiloff says, they wave. She feels comfortable greeting many of them by their first names.

“Most of the nighttime officers know everyone who works up here and form relationships with us.”

The SPD’s approach has been helped along by the leadership of openly-lesbian SPD Officer Sina Ebinger. Ebinger, who has worked at SPD for fifteen years, has headed the East and West Precinct's Community Outreach for the last three of those, leading brainstorm sessions on public safety with everyone from nightclub employees to non-profits.

And she’s no stranger to discrimination herself. Although she says she hasn’t experienced discrimination from members of the SPD itself, she is frequently called a man by people in the community. She brushes it off.

Ebinger's commitment to the Capitol Hill community has paid off. One of the groups she works closely with is Social Outreach Seattle, a non-profit that does outreach and awareness work in support of Capitol Hill’s LGBTQ community. Knittel, in addition to his role at Neighbours, is the founder of Social Outreach Seattle.

Over the years, Knittel and Ebinger have investigated many alleged anti-LGBTQ hate crimes together, including about 10 last summer. They make follow-up phone calls to the police department to check up on cases, educate the public about how to effectively report hate crimes, and accompany victims on the walk to the East Precinct to file reports.

He says you can’t walk five feet down the street with her, without someone saying, “Hi Officer Sina, how are you?”

At right: SPD officer Sina Ebinger connects with Aleksa Manila, a local drag queen. Photo: Shaun Knittel

For Social Outreach Seattle, the work is personal — five out of the nonprofit’s original 15 members have been attacked since July of 2012.

Why would Seattle’s most traditionally gay-friendly neighborhood be experiencing what, by all anecdotal accounts, appears to be such a sharp spike in LGBTQ hate crime? To answer this question, Ebinger explains, it’s helpful to think like a criminal.

Capitol Hill is a landscape with a rising population, dominated by bars and restaurants, and dotted with cashed out nightclub performers and bartenders. Throw alcohol into the mix, Ebinger says, and, in the eyes of a thief, you’ve created a neighborhood full of optimal targets.  

There are other factors involved, too. As the Hill’s population rises, more gay and straight people are mingling, says Sarah Toce, former Capitol Hill resident and founder of The Seattle Lesbian magazine.

“When I used to walk into LGBT-friendly establishments, there would be a bunch of women or men you could tell were gay. Now at the women’s bar, the Wild Rose, there’s men,” Toce says.

Though integration enhances a community’s diversity, it can also be a viaduct for homophobia.

A sign by RPlace’s main entrance embodies this trend. The establishment, it warns is A GAY BAR — which welcomes everyone — so long as you aren’t “a homophobe, racist, bigot, drug dealer, minor, loud mouth, drunk or asshole.” The disclaimer was posted a few years ago after a large group visited R Place, not realizing it was a gay bar. Angry, they lashed out at other patrons.

That’s not unusual on the Hill. During events that draw large crowds unfamiliar with the area, like the Capitol Hill Block Party a couple weekends ago, “a lot of my gay friends were called faggot more often than not,” Saphiloff says.

According to Toce and Hamilton, that phenomenon is magnified by a relative lull in more widespread gay rights activism that has followed the passage of Washington's gay marriage law.

When Washington activists “focused on that minimal battle," they "left a whole host of issues [on the table]” Hamilton says. Issues like transgender health care and LGBTQ homelessness. Issues like rising hate crimes against the Hill's LGBTQ community. There are stilll people championing these lesser-known causes, Hamilton explains, but they don't have the funding or political apparatus that the same-sex marriage campaign did.

On top of that, Toce explains, as more and more LGBTQ people move away from the Hill “to have families and a dog,” (a trend increasingly prevalent according to a recent Seattle Times report), it’s harder and harder to organize around LGBTQ rights. They simply lose touch, she says, of how violence in Capitol Hill affects them.

“We need to re-engage these people, remind them that this is where you came from.”

Other Capitol Hill residents believe that gains in LGBTQ rights have correlated with a backlash in violence, a disconcerting trend Toce believes can be found across the country.

Suzanna Walters, director of Northeastern University’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, has written widely about this idea, theorizing that increased tolerance of LGBTQ people may only be concealing ongoing homophobia.

“Just because the openly gay genie is out of the bottle — and sashaying down the gay pride runway — doesn’t mean that we’ve reached ‘post gay’ liberation or that real and dangerous retrenchments could not easily occur,” Walters writes in her new book, "The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality." She cites violent backlash towards African Americans after the Civil Rights movement, attacks on women throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s and anti-gay activism during the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

And, despite outreach, the Seattle Police Department more broadly remains unpopular among Capitol Hill's LGBTQ community. Manila, the local drag queen present during the Neighbours arson, says she felt transphobia from an SPD officer after she called to report an incident on Capitol Hill.

“They didn’t care what I was trying to explain to them,” Manila said. “I didn’t feel like they were attacking me, but they certainly made me feel stupid, like ‘Who is this freak?’”

That's a feeling that others share, even if it didn't originate on the streets of Seattle. Nationally, about 32 percent of anti-LGBTQ hate crime survivors report experiencing hostile attitudes from the police, according to the latest National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report.

“Sometimes people use a bad experience with a police officer in Colorado ten years ago as an excuse not to call the police department,” Ebinger says.

Either way, the result is the same: Some LGBTQ organizations refuse to work with Social Outreach Seattle because of its police ties. A Change.org petition, amassing about 100 signatures, protested posters Knittel put up which featured a rainbow flag with the SPD badge.

He was upset until a friend pointed out, “If you have a Change.org petition, you are out there making waves.”

At right: Shaun Knittel, founder of Social Outreach Seattle, speaks at a rally alongside his husband Yee-Shin Huang.

There are also those who would like to see even more police presence on the Hill, including more foot patrols. (East Precinct Captain Pierre Davis has promised to roll those out in the near future.)

According to Ebinger, the SPD does not yet have a policy in place to protect transgender individuals. There is no rule for example, that addresses what an officer should do when a transgender individual hands them an ID with a gender that doesn’t match the gender they've transitioned to. 

But patrols and policies can only do so much to keep hate off the Hill. Hamilton, despite suffering fatigue, bouts of short-term memory loss and $16,000 in medical bills, stresses the importance of forgiveness, education and empathy.

"Fighting homophobia is an ongoing educational process," he says. "Perpetuating the cycle of hate and revenge isn't going to do a thing."

Ebinger keeps this in mind each year as she rallies about 50 LGBTQ SPD officers to march in Seattle’s Pride Parade. In a city that appears increasingly less homophobic, some officers don't understand why they have to keep putting themselves out there. In her mind, the visible presence of LGBTQ officers builds trust among the LGBTQ community and reminds them that they too can sport law enforcement badges. 

“One event impacts a lot of people,” she says.

During his attacker's trial this August, Hamilton took his own advice about forgiveness. In the end, he decided not to charge his attacker, a homeless man, with a felony.

“I will have the opportunity to look him in the eyes and tell him, ‘I could have kicked you while you were down, but I didn’t.’”  

And he said the attack hasn’t changed how safe he feels on Capitol Hill. 

"This is my home. I have no reason to be afraid."

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