Hate crimes hit close to home | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Hate crimes hit close to home

Hate crimes take many forms, from ethnic slurs directed to an individual, graffiti targeting a certain group to extreme violence including the dragging death of James Byrd, a black Texan, and the pistol-whip slaying of an openly-gay college student, Matthew Shepard as pictured here.

By Susan Wood

Like worshippers to a Jewish synagogue in Reno that was a target of fire New Year’s Day, a South Tahoe Middle School student knows firsthand that the face of hate recognizes no boundaries.

The 14-year-old South Shore teen, whose name has been concealed to protect her identity, has endured a barrage of name-calling, threats and a punch in the face because of her sexual orientation.

Hate crimes are crimes of motivation based on religion, ethnicity, race, ancestry and disability.

The South Lake Tahoe eighth-grader started having affectionate feelings for other girls five years ago. At first, she didn’t want to tell anyone about it. But when she started dating a girl, people found out about it.

“Some kids spit on the ground (in front of me) and said don’t drown,” she said, adding that most of the time she was called a faggot – an inflammatory term for homosexual.

The longer she remained steadfast to dress as what some people would deem to be like a boy, the more relentless the harassment was, she said.

It happened in her neighborhood, at school and sometimes in between – prompting her to forego the bus ride to school in the morning and causing her to return home in tears.

An older boy in her neighborhood chased her, threatening to kill her.

“He never did it around my older sister,” she said.

The boy was arrested by South Lake Tahoe Police and detained for two days. The court had issued a restraining order on the boy to keep him away from the girl.

The teen confided in her homeroom teacher, Holly Greenough.

She told her teacher that some students called her names, and she didn’t like it. Greenough offered to intervene and called a meeting with the girl and the other students.

“They came willingly, but when they saw who was there, they immediately sat down and said, ‘I didn’t say it,'” Greenough said.

Refraining from reprimanding and preaching, the teacher calmly told the students that if they had said such a thing, a student’s sexual orientation is “none of their business.”

Approaching the situation with diplomacy, she also outlined the ramifications of spreading rumors.

“(The girl) was helpful because she was very willing to stay calm and keep emotions out of it,” Greenough said of her student who trusted her with the exercise in outreach.

These days, the harassment has lessened and some students step up to the plate to support their fellow student.

“It’s all a part of ignorance. The kids who use the most derogatory language have no background (in sexual orientation),” the teacher said, inviting a former student into her after-hours classroom Friday to hear the discussion.

That day, the lesson in self-discovery didn’t end with that round-table discussion.

Greenough showed a video biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., in which he gave his “I have a dream” speech.

Afterward, she asked the students who they felt was the most prominent target of discrimination.

“I thought it was interesting that the students pulled out gays and lesbians as being the No. 1 (group experiencing) prejudice in society today,” she said.

“This teacher gives me hope,” said Ely, a gay and lesbian outreach coordinator for the South Lake Tahoe Women’s Center. Ely, who is recognized by her first name only, also works there as an advocate for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.

Ely became a mentor to the middle school student, after a friendly referral last summer.

A few months later, the girl started confiding her plight to Ely .

The two cried together and had fun together – going to movies, kayaking and reviewing homework.

“I think it’s important for young people to have role models and adults to talk to who can encourage them to be who they are as individuals,” Ely said, adding how she’d like to get a support group for gay and lesbian youth off the ground.

The advocate believes it’s important to quell the name-calling before it escalates into abuse.

A stage production called “The Other Side of the Closet,” which played at Harveys Casino Resorts at Stateline in October, dramatizes the repercussions of discrimination and anti-gay hate. The San Francisco band of actors will tour the schools with the production, and South Tahoe High School was proposed as a location to stage the play.

An 80-page report released by the Safe Schools Coalition of Washington State listed 111 episodes of harassment and discrimination in the state’s schools in the 1998-99 session.

The report recommended better teacher training on homosexuality, school district bans on anti-gay language and other harassment, mental health support for sexual minorities, education for students on sexual orientation issues and other measures.

In an attempt to provide awareness of the scope of discrimination, MTV broke away from regular programming last Wednesday to air 17 hours of a continuous list of hate crimes. The cable music channel preceded the scroll with a made-for-TV movie about the bias-related murder of Matthew Shepard, the openly-gay University of Wyoming student who died October 1998.

Meanwhile, a federal hate crimes bill that passed the U.S. Senate in its last session was stalled in the House of Representatives.

In the United States, 7,876 hate crimes were reported to the U.S. Department of Justice from more than 12,000 law enforcement agencies from across the nation in 1999. The year before, the number was lower, at 7,755.

California sustained 1,949 in 1999 and 1,749 the year before, the FBI reported. In Nevada, 75 hate crimes entered the books in 1999. Sixty were reported in 1998.

The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office reported three hate cases since 1995, while Washoe County’s D.A. said four crimes made the books in 1998 alone.

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