Hate crimes against Utah LGBTQ nearly doubled last year, with a big jump during Pride Month

Officials and community members worry divisive politics could embolden future attacks.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Taylor Jack Nelson at his home in Provo on Monday, May 16, 2022. Thieves took Pride flags from his house twice, a crime he said could be "indicative of a broader cultural norm and shift.”

When Taylor Nelson first hung an LGBTQ pride flag outside his house in Provo, he said he expected that something would happen to it. It was 2016, Donald Trump had just been elected president and Nelson lived at a house along a main road off the highway into the heart of the Latter-day Saint college town.

Driving by, he said, it’s hard to miss the rainbow banner jutting from a pole on the front porch.

While he worried the flag’s location could make him a target, he also liked that it was conspicuous. He thought of it as a signal to anyone who needed to see it that there was a place for LGBTQ people — a community — in the predominantly conservative town.

For years, it stayed in its place on the porch, more often prompting queer people to stop, knock and tell Nelson they appreciated the gesture than it did thefts or any sort of vandalism.

This past year, though, the flag went missing. Nelson replaced it. That flag — and the pole — disappeared in April. This, as local and national politicians have passed laws barring transgender girls’ participation alongside other girls in high school sports and proposed adding content warnings to children’s media with LGBTQ content or banning discussion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or gender-nonconforming people in schools altogether.

“It’s a small thing,” Nelson said about his flags going missing, “and it probably was just some dumb teenagers. But also that is still indicative of a broader cultural norm and shift.”

“And also,” Nelson added, “teenagers grow up to be adults.”

Is intolerance on the rise?

Last year, Utah’s hate crime numbers were higher than they’ve been in at least the last five years, bolstered by a near doubling of race or ethnicity-, gender identity and sexual orientation- and religion-biased offenses.

Of the 134 hate crimes reported last year, 42 targeted LGBTQ people, up from 22 in 2020. The biggest increase was in offenses targeting the entire LGBTQ community, like damaging or taking a Pride flag. Those reports grew from two to 17. There were also six offenses targeting transgender people, up from three the year before.

Last year in June, which is LGBTQ Pride Month, the state saw a big jump compared to previous Junes, with 35 hate crime reports, compared to 16 in 2020 and 14 in 2019.

While the 18 crimes committed against someone for their race or ethnicity outpaced the 13 anti-gender identity and sexual oriented crime reports that month, offenders biased against the entire LGBT community made up the largest share of the reported offenses, with 10. In at least one of those 10 attacks, someone burned a pride flag in Kaysville and left a “derogatory note.”

Law enforcement also noted two anti-lesbian offenses and a single report of a crime against a gender-nonconforming person.

The most recent FBI data shows the number of crimes committed against someone for their sexual orientation nationwide remained basically flat in 2020 compared to the year before, while hate crimes against people based on their gender identity jumped significantly, alongside big increases in crimes against Black and Asian people.

Nationally, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the influential Alabama-based legal advocacy and civil rights group, identified 65 anti-LGBTQ groups in its 2021 Year In Extremism report. That’s the same number it reported in 2020, but up from 49 in 2018.

The SPLC said last year the anti-LGBTQ movement “had one of its most successful years.” The SPLC’s report said these groups focused “on regressive state legislative policies, pushing harmful conversion ‘therapy,’ vilifying trans people, banning books that were LGBTQ-welcoming, and taking on school boards on anti-LGBTQ topics.” Some of these efforts succeeded.

So long as these groups exist, the SPLC said, LGBTQ people “face continued threats, intimidation, violence and bias.”

Trying to explain why

The Utah Department of Public Safety data analysts aren’t sure if there were actually more hate crimes in Utah last year or just more people and agencies reporting them.

“It’d probably be a mix, the best as I can say from looking at the data,” said Mandy Biesinger, with the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification. She said the rise in violent crimes committed against people could be a factor, as well as the state’s shift to tracking crime stats using the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which is more comprehensive than the previous method.

Regardless, these numbers aren’t an accurate count of how often hate crimes occur. The SPLC says the total is likely higher. Sometimes the officer who responded doesn’t identify a hate crime as such, either through clerical error or a misunderstanding of the offender’s motivation. Often, victims don’t report to the police because they don’t know what good it will do. The U.S. Department of Justice said last month that approximately 42% of people subjected to “violent hate crime victimizations” didn’t report them to the police.

In Utah, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill theorized that a lack of reporting may be due to the state not having a workable hate crime statute until 2019 — people just didn’t think reporting mattered.

Since that law went into effect, there have been approximately 15 hate crime cases filed in District Court, according to data provided by the Utah State Courts. Most of them for crimes related to people’s race, sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of the cases.

Earlier this month, the University of Utah reported that since its Pride Week in March, there have been “five cases of hateful or biased crimes directed at members of the LGBTQIA+ community” at the U. These included the removal of a Pride Week event poster, vandalism of a rainbow-wrapped Block U on campus, a homophobic chant at an intramural soccer game, anti-trans vandalism in a business-school restroom and anti-gay vandalism during the Monster Jam event at Rice-Eccles Stadium in April.

The statement said these crimes occurred alongside “debate and legislation to curb the rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals”

“These acts demean, dismiss and attempt to erase the day-to-day experiences of our friends and family members,” Mary Ann Villarreal, the U’s vice president for equity, diversity and inclusion, said in the statement.

Maintaining safety

It’s hard to know how much divisive laws and political rhetoric influence real-world behavior, but Utah Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, said U.S. Sen. Mike Lee’s recent call to label gay characters on TV as “disturbing content” was “divisive, cruel and unacceptable.”

Kitchen, who is Utah’s only openly gay state lawmaker, said Lee’s suggestion has “life-or-death consequences for our queer community,” in a state where the youth suicide rate is one of the highest in the country.

It took 20 years for Utah to get a true hate crime statute that enumerates protected personal attributes, like race, religion or gender because lawmakers couldn’t agree to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the list.

Some said the hesitation stemmed from the perception The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opposed that addition. The bill passed in 2019, and was signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, after the church clarified its stance.

Gill said he is thankful the law finally passed because local and national data bears out that “our climate has changed” and people seem more emboldened to attack someone based on some kind of bias about who the victim is.

Hate crimes, Gill said, target two victims — the individual attacked, and the community they belong to — and can have a chilling effect on the members of that community.

“But by having a workable state statute…,” Gill said, “it empowers people to say that, ‘If this happens to me, that there is an institutional response that I can rely upon for that measure of justice.’”

Utah Pride events usually have not attracted many protesters or people intending to harm attendees, said Jessica Dummar, co-CEO of the Utah Pride Center, which organizes the Utah Pride Week events. However, there’s reason to believe there might be more opposition to this year’s Utah Pride Festival and Parade — set for June 4 and 5 in downtown Salt Lake City — than in years past.

“According to a lot of the legislation that’s going through and the rhetoric that is being spread … people’s humanity and bodily autonomy is up for debate,” Dummar said. “That tends to lead to the idea that that [opposition]’s a cool thing.”

Dummar has been talking with local officials and law enforcement to try to keep counterprotesters further away from the festival’s grounds on Washington Square. She is advocating for a designated protest area, similar to what is set up during Latter-day Saint General Conference weekends.

Salt Lake City police spokesman Brent Weisberg said he couldn’t release information about the department’s operational plan, but said safety is their top priority. He said officers will patrol along the parade route and festival grounds, and the department will participate in the celebration.

“We encourage anyone who will be attending Pride to have a great time, express themselves safely, and to report anything suspicious by calling 911 or flagging down one of our officers,” Weisberg said. “We are committed to making sure our LGBTQIA+ community feels safe and welcomed in Salt Lake.”

More people have been reaching out to the Utah Pride Center looking for support, Dummar said. The center has received so many calls in the last month, she said, that the center began hosting additional support groups and activities.

Lessons of history

Nelson, who is the co-executive director of the inclusive An Other Theater Company and researches queer history as a hobby, said he’s struck by parallels he sees between the present and the past. There’s often a pendulum swing to the right after societies push to the left.

He pointed to the progress of social movements in the United States in the ‘60s and ‘70s that stalled as the AIDS epidemic spread and voters elected Ronald Reagan, a small-government conservative, as president in 1980. Or the rise of sexual freedom in pre-World War II Berlin (depicted in the musical “Cabaret”), and the backlash that occurred during the rise of Nazism. Nelson said he didn’t want to be alarmist. He said he doesn’t think anything on the scale of a queer Holocaust could happen here. But he has noticed a regression in Utah — playing out a few feet from his front door.

“I don’t know that that kind of institutional hatred can really get as much of a foothold as it used to be able to, but that being said, maybe it can,” Nelson said. “Who knows?”


What should you do?

What should you do if you are the victim of a hate crime? The Human Rights Campaign urges people to take these steps.

1. Get medical help, if needed.

2. Write down as many details of the crime as soon as possible after it happens. Include whatever details you recall of the person or people who did it: Gender, age, height, race, weight, clothes, or other distinguishing characteristics. If the person or people made threats or said biased comments (such as anti-gay slurs), add them to the report.

3. File a police report. Get the responding officer’s name and badge number. Make sure the officer files an incident report form and assigns a case number. If a police report isn’t taken at the time of your report, go to the police station and ask for one. Always get your own copy, even of the preliminary report. If you believe the incident was motivated by bias, urge the officer to check the appropriate box — “hate/bias-motivation” or “hate crime/incident” — on the police report.

4. Contact your local LGBTQ community organization about the incident.

5. Find support from friends and family, and/or from an LGBTQ-affirmative therapist.

6. Find resources from the FBI, online at fbi.gov/resources/victim-services.

7. Contact an anti-violence support service, such as the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, at avp.org/get-help.

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