In Their Own Words: Hate Crime Victims Tell Their Stories
"Erin's Story: I Didn't Know It Was A Hate Crime"
Erin McLaughlin, M.A.
I want to begin by sharing with you that I am a survivor. Seven years ago, had you asked me, I might have told you something different. During that time, I would have said that my girlfriend and I were "jumped" by five guys. I didn't have a context to understand what I had experienced was a hate crime. To a twenty-one year-old me, hate crimes were something that Neo-Nazis perpetrated against Jews and people who were not White. I had not yet grasped how heterosexism and homophobia could materialize as events that I could experience on a personal level. Familiar with homophobia and heterosexism as intellectual, theoretical, notions, I only felt the consequences of the brutality I experienced. I felt frightened, angry and I thought I had to take care of "my personal problems" on my own. It never occurred to me to talk to a therapist or to go to the Gay and Lesbian Center to access some kind of "social services". I would not have been aware of what I was going to seek help for. Gay and Lesbian social services, I thought, were for people who either had AIDS or who were "coming out"… and I was already "out". I felt I had gone through the process of "coming out" quite well because I told my parents I was a lesbian, made my mom cry, and lived to tell about it. Two years before that blessed event, I just figured out what a "lesbian" was. I had discovered that all lesbians did not wear leather, drive motorcycles, and hate men. In fact, I had developed an identity as an "out" activist who marched for gay and lesbian rights, organized "kiss-ins" at fairly conservative locations, and who spoke on lesbian panels for college classrooms. The events of what I experienced are still very clear in my mind. I am choosing to share my story in an effort to assist social service providers in understanding what issues gay and lesbian survivors of hate crime may have to contend with after experiencing such an event. As well, I hope to provide some insight into what interventions may be relevant for survivors during a process of recovery.
Seven years ago, I remember deciding to go to a local bar in Long Beach with my partner at the time, Lourinda. This was a long standing lesbian bar, called "The Qué", where I spent most of my time socializing. It was a dive that resided in a neighborhood where I had previously lived for some years. Even though the area was full of situations and characters that often required police intervention, I many times ended my nights by walking from this bar to my home. I knew the importance of being aware of my surroundings, and often took the normal precautions one might take both as a woman and a lesbian living in this society such as, not holding your girlfriend's hand in public situations that do not feel safe. Calculating the necessity of being invisible as a lesbian in different social contexts became a survival strategy that was almost automatic. Even with these coping strategies at my disposal, I had never considered the fact that I could be a target of extreme violence merely as a result of my sexual orientation. The full extent of any traumas I had experienced throughout the years on my sojourns home from this bar were mainly ones self-inflicted upon my liver. In 1991, Lourinda and I entered the Qué at 8 p.m. and stayed only for an hour to have "a" beer because I had a math class the following morning. We stepped out of the bar and started walking towards my car, which rested just a block away. I remember making a mental note and feeling a relative sense of security because I was parked so close and because I was walking with another person. As I looked down the street, I saw a group of six or seven teenagers coming in our direction. My initial reaction was fear. I thought, "Oh shit, we should cross the street…" Immediately after that flash of intuition, a rationalization process commenced. The rationalization said something like, "Don't be racist, Erin, just because they're a bunch of young, black, teenagers doesn't mean they're in a gang and are going to beat the shit out of you". As I continued to berate myself for being racist, our path crossed that with the young men and one of them asked Lourinda for a cigarette. She told them "no", and we attempted to continue through the group. It was a distraction, apparently, because the next thing I knew, one of the guys was grabbing Lourinda by the front of her shirt. I became angry and tried to push the guy off of her. Returned to me from this assailant was a punch in the face. The fist came towards my face in slow motion, and upon impact, I was utterly shocked that this person had hit me. As I had never even been in a physical fight before, the last thing I expected was for someone to hit me. At the same time, I saw Lourinda had managed to slap another one in the group, which had the effect of startling him so she could get away. Lourinda was able to run back to the bar for help. I felt relief when I saw her run, and thought, "good, she got away".
Then there was me. Immediately after being punched in the face, I hit the pavement. Laying there in a pile on the sidewalk, I thought, "O.K., they can obviously see I'm down now and I'm not going to put up a fight. This will be over soon." As if sparked by the fact I had dared to think this, the kicks came at me from all angles. I felt blows to my ribs, my back, and arms…the explosions of pain seemed to come from everywhere. I somehow had an instinct to cover my head with my arms to cushion any blows that came there. During this moment, I remember being vaguely aware that one of them had a lead pipe, but couldn't ascertain whether or not I was being struck with it. At that point I thought, "O.K. I'm going to crawl into the street now. Either someone's going to run over my ass or someone is going to stop and help me…either way this is going to be over". So I crawled, amidst laughter and taunts, managing somehow to make it to the gutter. I was absolutely triumphant in the fact that I had made it to the place where the sidewalk turns into curb and intersects with the edge of the street. Within my line of vision, the gutter was all I could see or focus on…I was too frightened to look at anything else. I was afraid that if I looked up at them, they would do worse than kick and laugh at me. Someone did stop to help me. I remember an older man pulling up next to me in his car and shouting at my assailants. My assailants started off down the street, laughing and shouting, "Fucking dyke, God will save you". The old man in his car drove off just as quickly as he had arrived. So I lay there, and seconds later, two butch dykes picked me up out of my beloved gutter. I remember thinking that they were huge and being glad for that because I felt safe. As they assisted me back to the bar, one of them asked me, "What happened?" "I don't know", I had replied, "those guys jumped us". As we reached the entrance of the Qué, one of my saviors turned to me and said, "You know, you should really think about taking a self-defense course"… They then disappeared into the bar as Lourinda and the bartender rushed towards me to see if I was all right. I was flabbergasted and looked around for the two women who had just left me. I thought, "I did take self-defense. I took a whole semester of it!"
Days later, I was angry that they had said this to me. A self-defense course meant nothing against five guys…one of whom held a lead pipe in his hand. They were blaming me for being a victim more than they were blaming the guys who beat me up because I was a lesbian. After seeing that Lourinda was physically intact, I had an initial urge to cry, but made a great effort to push the tears away because I didn't want her to think that I wasn't O.K. I wanted to be able to support her because she had been hurt as well. I was afraid that if I began to cry about what had just happened to us, I would become totally hysterical and utterly useless. I never actually cried about what had happened until a little more than a year ago, and Lourinda and I never talked about it between us. Instead, I plopped down on a barstool and sat in a state of shock. Judy, one of the bartenders at the time, handed me a beer and I drank. We sat and waited for the police to come. During this time, the perpetrators had migrated directly across the street from the bar and were hanging out at the Seven Eleven that was there. The police took a good twenty minutes or more to respond to our call. In retrospect, this seemed ridiculous to me because the area within which the Qué resides is one where police cars typically are seen cruising every few minutes. By the time the police had arrived, the guys were long gone. Regardless, I was happy to see the police. I felt a sense of security seeing a uniform, and thought that because these two men were "the police", that they would know what to do. I was wrong. "The police" were polite, took a report, and then proceeded to report that what had happened to Lourinda and I was an attempted robbery. Nothing was stolen, but I didn't argue. I did not know that what had taken place was a hate crime…despite the fact that this happened just in front of a lesbian bar, besides the fact they shouted "fucking dyke at me", and told me that, "God would save me". I simply felt overwhelmed and frustrated that I could not give the police any type of description of the perpetrators…I couldn't tell them what these guys looked like. I didn't even know if these guys were lined up in front of me minutes after the event if I could be absolutely sure of what they looked like. As the police left, we were not handed any literature, we were not referred to any victim services, and it was not suggested that we might wanted to get checked out by a doctor for injuries. We discovered later that Lourinda had sustained a concussion that required medication while I had escaped this event with some bruised ribs.
That night, Lourinda and I drove home. We told our friends what had happened, and they were very supportive. Flowers were sent. One of my friends even drove the streets of Long Beach in her Volkswagon with a baseball bat, hoping to find the guys who did this to us. It was as if she was enacting exactly what I wished to do. For some time after this episode, one of the things I was most upset about was that I didn't get a slap, a punch, a kick, or even a defiant "spit in the face" back at my assailants. The other thing I continually beat myself up for was not listening to my initial intuition, which told me to cross the street when I saw the five guys approaching us. It made me feel like a helpless victim. The next day, I called my parents to share with them what had taken place the night before. My parents were appropriately concerned, and made me promise to go to the doctor's to make sure that I was not seriously injured. I was reluctant at first to tell them what had happened because I didn't want to upset them, and because of prior conversations regarding how hard my life would be because I was a lesbian. Although initially soothed by my parents' response, my sister later shared with me the scene that took place at home after I hung up the phone. This entailed my mother becoming very upset and my father asking my sister, "don't you think your sister's choice of lifestyle is stupid?" This infuriated me not only because I do not feel I, at any point, chose to be a lesbian, but also because I felt like this was yet another instance of blaming the victim. First from my community, and now from my parents. For some time, their lack of comprehension regarding my sexuality severed further conversation both about the incident and about other issues within my "lifestyle".
In the weeks following the hate crime, I walked around in what felt like a daze. Summer school was ending, I quit my job and I had to find a new place to live because of unstable roommates. What stands out most during that time was how I felt when I drove by the area where I was beat up. Every time I passed through the streets and would stop at intersections by the Qué, I became panicked. My heart rate would go up, I would sweat, breathe shallowly and become convinced that any man walking in front of my car was going to beat me up. Anger would follow the fear. I was angry because this was my neighborhood, too, and because I felt chased out. My fear and anger eventually drove my decision to take a job as a cocktail waitress at the Qué. After several months of working at the bar, the fear gradually subsided and then disappeared. Things went back to "normal", so to speak. The only difference now seemed to be that I was more aware of what the end result of harassing remarks could be. Verbal remarks, stares, propositions by men, and similar events that occur for lesbians on a daily basis, serve as a reminder of what could happen if one chooses not to remain invisible in this society. Experiencing a hate crime firsthand clinched in my mind why it was so very important that I make a conscious effort to be "out" in all aspects of my life. Through my experience, I came to believe that the enforced invisibility of gays and lesbians in this society creates an atmosphere where stereotypes and myths are allowed to flourish, thus making hate crimes more acceptable. I believe it is much easier to beat up some "man-hating dyke", than it is to beat up "Erin, the college student, who has a family in San Diego and who is studying psychology because she enjoys working to empower people".
In retrospect, I believe different things could have helped me heal from the violence I encountered. I needed the gay and lesbian community, as well as the police, to have information about hate crime available. When this happened to me, I would have had to been first aware that I had been a victim of a hate crime in order to begin to seek assistance and information. If I had more information about hate crimes in general, I may have been able to place what had happened to me within a context. This way, I may have begun to understand this event as a specific social phenomenon, rather than a random, chaotic event. When I was beat up, I pushed it away because it seemed like just a crazy thing that had happened to me. If I had information that what had occurred was a hate crime, I may have been able to focus my process of recovery like I am now. When I was asked by one of my professors to assist with a training on hate crimes a year ago, I cried for the first time about what happened to me. It was if I was finally able to process and release what had happened in a forum that was productive for both me and my community. Through my healing process, I was able to assist others in learning about hate crimes. As well, participating in this event made me feel like I was making a conscious effort to eradicate hate crime in our society. Community support for gay and lesbian victims of hate crimes is important to combat isolation, depression and fear. I found it helpful to have a large network of friends who were supportive to me at this time, and who did not label me as a "victim". One of the things that disturbed me most about my experience was the revictimization process that occurred after the event. In a sense, others' reactions, such as the two women suggesting I take a self-defense course, or my father telling my family that my choice of lifestyle was stupid, was worse than the actual experience of being beaten up. Their reactions made me feel angry and helpless.
Erin McLaughlin holds her M.A. in Psychology from California State Long Beach. She is the Assistant Director at 'Harbour Area Halfway Houses' and a volunteer with Rainbow Services, providing crisis intervention with survivors of domestic violence. She has published and worked in the area of same-sex domestic violence.