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Could new Virginia policies reduce anti-LGBT hate crimes?

VCU expert Liz Coston, Ph.D., is reaching out to lawmakers to share evidence and make policy recommendations that could curtail LGBT hate crime victimization.

Two rainbow flags flutter in front of a building.
A VCU expert is reaching out to lawmakers to share evidence and make policy recommendations that could curtail LGBT hate crime victimization. (Getty Images)

Over the course of their lifetime, an estimated 20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual people will experience a hate crime, research has shown. For transgender people, that rate rises to 27 percent.

Smiling person wearing vest and tie.
Liz Coston, Ph.D.

To reduce the risk of LGBT hate crime victimization in Virginia, Liz Coston, Ph.D., an instructor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a translational research fellow in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, is reaching out to state lawmakers to share evidence based on their research and make policy recommendations.

Coston — who studies criminology and public policy with a focus on sexuality, gender and gender identity, and race—has prepared a policy brief, “Reducing Anti-LGBT Hate Crimes and Improving Services to Survivors,” that will be distributed to lawmakers through the Wilder School’s Office of Public Policy Outreach.

The brief makes three key recommendations that Coston says would reduce victimization of LGBT people by hate crimes:

  • Shifts in state public policies that affirm LGBT persons as equal citizens under the law.
  • Training for police and medical personnel in recognizing hate crime victimization and cultural competency related to LGBT communities is needed to make reporting of hate crimes safer for victims.
  • Anti-bullying and educational programs for youth and young adults, who are most likely to commit anti-LGBT hate crimes. These programs could improve the social climate for LGBT people and reduce anti-LGBT hate crimes.

Coston recently discussed their LGBT hate crime research, the policy brief, and how more inclusive and welcoming public policies can actually reduce the risk of violence.

How would you describe your area of expertise and your research in this area?

My area of expertise is in criminology, public policy and the intersection of various identities — so sexualities, race, class, gender. My research in that area focuses on anti-LGBT hate crimes, specifically. I look at the large-scale, macro-level factors that impact those crimes. For example, I examine public policies, asking questions such as: Do same-sex marriage bans or same-sex marriage legislation increase or decrease rates of hate crime victimization?

I also look at individual-level characteristics, specifically how characteristics like race, class and gender impact the potential to be victimized. Are racial and ethnic minorities more likely to be victimized by anti-LGBT hate crimes? Are lesbians or gay men or transgender people more likely to be victimized?

The statistics are kind of surprising. When we read qualitative reports about hate crime victimization, we find that trans people experience more serious victimization, but one of the interesting things my research has found is that they actually experience the same types of crimes. So while the impact of the crime might be experienced differently, they are largely victimized in the same way as lesbians, gay and bisexual people.

And when we look at the larger-scale factors, things like public policy, some policies don’t have much of an impact. Hate crime legislation — such as increased penalties for people who perpetrate hate crimes — do not actually reduce hate crimes in the short term.

We can create laws that penalize crime, but that doesn’t, for the most part, prevent people from committing the crime anyway. There’s little deterrent effect for most criminal law.

But what we do find is that those types of legislation might change cultural perceptions. So, for example, saying same-sex marriage is legal everywhere and [policies that say], ‘We see LGBT people as being equal,’ that creates a positive impact. It actually reduces hate crime victimization. Whereas, when constitutional bans against same-sex marriage passed in many states, hate crime rates simultaneously increased in those states, pretty much across the board.

In other words, policies that send a message that we’re accepting of LGBT people, they’re just like everyone else, and they deserve the same rights, the same treatment and the same respect, those policies have a positive impact. Whereas, when we think about policies that specifically target crime — crime deterrence policies — don’t typically work.

What are specific policies you would recommend Virginia lawmakers enact to reduce LGBTQ hate crime?

A lot of it is really about cultural change. We see that most of the people who commit anti-LGBT hate crimes are young people. So having anti-bullying campaigns in school, for example, is important. Teaching young people about LGBT identities generally is important. This kind of educational awareness to target people before they go out and commit those crimes is, I think, an important aspect. Because we see that trying to legislate after the fact and saying, ‘OK, don’t go out and commit those crimes,’ does not really have the same impact. So early interventions are important.

Another one of the main findings from my research is that people don’t report these crimes when they happen. There’s still a lot of stigma around being an LGBT person and victimization because you’re LGBT only increases those feelings. So people aren’t going to the police, people aren’t seeking medical care. And a lot of that is because those institutions aren’t culturally competent. So when somebody who’s LGBT goes to the doctor, they’re afraid they’re going to experience homophobia. Or they’re afraid to go to the police because they’re afraid that they’re going to be further victimized or experience homophobia there as well.

This means that education on the front end for youth, and ongoing education for service providers, is a really important thing. Because if people are victimized, then they need to be able to get help after the fact.

How does Virginia stack up to other states when it comes to policies that counteract anti-LGBTQ hate crimes?

In comparison to other states, Virginia lags behind on policy. For example, we don’t have an employment nondiscrimination act [for LGBT people]. We don’t have a specific law that protects trans people in terms of health care provision.

In terms of public policy, Virginia could definitely do better to be on par with some of the states that are at the leading edge of LGBT rights.

We don’t have specific legislation that addresses hate crimes here in Virginia. There’s a pretty good chunk of states that don’t have this, even today. All states are covered by federal legislation — the federal government can come in and decide to prosecute a hate crime — but we don’t have state-level legislation that covers LGBT people for hate crimes.

And even though [an anti-LGBT hate crime law] might not actually reduce hate crime victimization in the short term, I think it sends an important message that says: ‘We don’t accept that kind of violence here. We don’t tolerate it. And LGBT people should not be targeted.’ Even if it doesn’t reduce hate crime victimization on the front end, it could have an important impact down the road.

When we have policies that reinforce people’s negative ideas about LGBT people, it’s harmful. That’s the plainest, simplest way to put it. Any policies that we implement that de-stigmatize LGBT people — that say, ‘No, LGBT people are equal, they deserve rights, they deserve protection’ — these policies ultimately end up benefiting LGBT people.