Josh Boatwright and Lisa Gillespie
A downtown robbery in which a man said his attackers used antigay slurs has some residents organizing to improve the safety of gays and lesbians on city streets. The man told police two men punched, kicked and robbed him shortly after midnight July 6 near O. Henry Avenue and Haywood Street, according to a police report.
The man said he fought off his attackers with a pocketknife and tried to scale a fence nearby, but they pulled him down and continued beating him while shouting vulgar slurs.The man stabbed one of his assailants with a pocketknife before they left with his wallet, according to the report. Asheville Police Capt. Tim Splain said it does not appear the suspects attacked the victim because he was gay.“In this case, they were doing a robbery, and they ended up making some antigay slurs,” Splain said. The man fought his attackers and emerged from the struggle unscathed, he said.
A concerned community
Word of the attack traveled quickly by e-mail and a blog entry this week, resulting in a community meeting Wednesday night that drew 80 people to the Firestorm Café in Asheville. Organizers of a group to be called the Safe Streets Asheville Project floated the idea of creating a telephone hot line for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to help report hate crimes to the police.They also hoped the group would be able to coordinate rides home for those without a car. Safe Streets organizer Louise Newton said others have told her stories about recent attacks that appeared motivated by hate after she sent out e-mails about the meeting. “That just brought home to me that it’s not just about this single event, but actually about a series of events and a culture in Asheville that’s an underbelly that we don’t see very often,” she said, adding that the city is a generally progressive and inclusive place.Reports of assaults against gays and lesbians highlight the need for people to speak out, said Michael Harney, a prevention educator for the Western North Carolina AIDS Project.
“I think this is gonna be an educational opportunity within the GLBT community to encourage people, no matter what — if they are called a name, if someone throws something at them or they are physically assaulted — to report it,” Harney said in an interview after the meeting. Harney suggested hate crime victim services be added to the United Way’s 211 information hot line that provides listings for a variety of local agencies.‘It’s disappointing’ Others at the meeting said the incident shed doubt on their perception of Asheville as a gay-friendly place.“Outside of Asheville, the city has a reputation of being very open. I was shocked to learn that this is not the case; it’s disappointing,” said Cliff Yudell, who recently moved to Asheville from Miami to retire. “There needs to be a central organization that deals with gay rights and concerns, and the larger community should care about this.”Sasha Tobin, 23, said she walks all over town to save gas money, and she wants to have someone to call if she feels like she’s in danger.“Five other women live in my house that identify as queer, and we shouldn’t have to feel at risk every time we walk from our house to downtown,” she said.
Investigating the crime
Police are investigating possible connections between the July 6 robbery and several other incidents reported in the city last weekend, Splain said.He also explained why the police had not immediately acknowledged that the incident had been reported after receiving calls earlier this week from people in the community asking about a gay bashing on Haywood Street.Because the report was listed as a common-law robbery, he said, it wasn’t immediately clear what incident they were asking about.Splain said reports in Asheville of crimes motivated by hatred against gays are rare, though he suspects many may go unreported by those who don’t want to make their sexual orientation public. “There always needs to be some awareness that people are treated differently based on their sexual preference or race,” he said.
Lack of legal protections
Even though reporting hate crimes based on sexual orientation is voluntary for law enforcement agencies, Ian Palmquist, executive director of the gay-rights lobbying group Equality NC, said they are the second-most reported type of bias-motivated crime, after race. North Carolina hate crime laws do not include sexual orientation as a protected category, and Palmquist said the lack of other legal protections may cause some not to report crimes.“We live in a state where it’s perfectly legal to fire someone simply because they’re gay, and victims may be reluctant to go forward and go public if they know their sexual orientation is going to be put out to the world,” Palmquist said in a phone interview. Newton said people should not be pressured to come forward after an assault or other traumatic event if they don’t want to, but the community needs to be there to support them. Splain said Police Chief Bill Hogan and others in the department have met with leaders in Asheville’s GLBT community and will continue to work to address their concerns.Newton said her group plans to hold more meetings in coming weeks.