On February 13, performer Bret Fetzer was walking down 11th Avenue toward Pine Street after seeing a play at Annex Theatre, when a man began talking at him, following him to the bus stop, and calling him "faggot." When Fetzer turned to face him, the man smashed a beer bottle into the side of his head.
Fetzer was lucky to walk away with little more than a big, bloody bruise on the side of his jaw. Seattle police say they have no leads on the perpetrator.
At a public forum on March 3 called "End Hate Crimes Against the LGBTQ Community!" held at All Pilgrims Christian Church on Capitol Hill, speakers told plenty more stories like Fetzer's. They spoke of a pervasive atmosphere of fear and intimidation in their community—of feeling unsafe on Capitol Hill, especially at night. Jackie Sandberg described being attacked with skateboards by a "queer-phobic couple" while sleeping on the streets; Ryn Brocx said in the previous week, she was attacked verbally and physically for "walking while trans."
"Hate violence is nothing new on Capitol Hill," said Gender Justice League's Danni Askini, who co-moderated the forum with city council member Kshama Sawant. Indeed, a quick Google search brings up virtually annual news reports, year after year, on rashes of hate crimes in Seattle, going back decades.
In 2012, according to FBI data reported by the Seattle Times, Seattle had the third-highest rate of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in the country—three per 100,000 residents—after Washington, DC, and Memphis. And last year, during the first half of 2014, according to SPD, there were 49 incidents investigated as hate crimes, which under state law are crimes that target someone based on race, religion, disability, or sexual orientation. Twenty-one of those were against LGBTQ people, including 10 alone in the East Precinct, which covers Capitol Hill. (The department doesn't yet have data on the second half of 2014, but if hate crimes continued at the same rate in the second half of the year, there would have been 42 anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in 2014. That would be a significant rise in reported hate crimes since 2013, when for the entire year there were 19.)
So in the fastest-growing large city in the country—one that touts itself as one of the gay-friendliest—what would ending hate crimes against LGBTQ people look like? Over the past week, since the forum, I've talked to officials, police, homeless-shelter staff, transgender activists, and domestic-violence workers. And I've noticed they share two things in common: a consensus on the outline of the problem and an across-the-board funding deficit. But they're running on separate tracks toward different solutions.
Let's start with the police, who agree with the activists that official hate-crimes statistics represent a significant undercount. "We understand that there are concerns that people still have about reporting hate crimes to our officers," said Sergeant Sean Whitcomb. "This is an opportunity... to redouble our efforts."
To that end, the department plans to launch a program in April called SPD Safe Place. The program will offer local businesses and organizations the opportunity to receive training on how to operate a safe space for members of the LGBTQ community. Those spaces will be advertised with a conspicuous rainbow-colored shield logo in the window. If someone feels threatened, said Officer Jim Ritter, they should duck into one of these places and call 911.
"It addresses a lack of opportunity," Ritter said, "when people are confronted by someone who is engaging in hateful talk or a hateful criminal act."
This is Ritter's job now. Since taking over the LGBTQ community liaison program four months ago, the 32-year veteran officer, who came out in the 1990s, said he's been hard at work designing the program and laying the groundwork for its launch. "There are 72 LGBTQ groups in this city alone," Ritter explained, "and most of them don't talk to each other... It's a pretty labor-intensive project, and I'm basically the only one working on it."
When I asked for a ballpark figure for SPD Safe Place's budget, Ritter laughed and said he was waiting to find out.
At the Capitol Hill forum, after Jackie Sandberg brought the room to an emotional standstill with their ("they" is Sandberg's gender pronoun) account of hate-based violence, one idea seemed to gain traction: a shelter specifically for homeless LGBTQ youth. There are around 1,000 homeless youth in King County on any given night, according to YouthCare, and only several dozen available shelter beds. While some shelters are dedicated to certain groups, none of them are specifically for LGBTQ youth, even though roughly 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ—many of them transgender—according to YouthCare.
Council Member Sawant pledged to fight to fund such a shelter in next year's budget process and exhorted the crowd to get involved in a movement for a "people's budget" based on progressive taxation and expanded revenue for a range of social services.
What do the folks at YouthCare, who operate a range of shelters and support services for youth in Seattle, think about the proposal? "Yes, of course, we love [the idea], and let's do it right," said Jody Waits, the group's communications director. She warned that just slapping a label on a homeless shelter wouldn't be enough—serious work would need to go into making it a truly safe space for LGBTQ youth.
But opening new centers is pretty resource intensive, and one of Seattle's strengths is its network of community groups. "We have neighborhood-based organizations that are very decentralized," said Shannon Perez-Darby, youth services program manager with the Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse. This can make it hard for newcomers to get a handle on the constellation of services they offer, she said. But for those with the time to drill down, it means there are grassroots organizations that can be uniquely responsive. (An official LGBTQ Center shut down in 2008 due to lack of financial and community support.)
In response to a series of forums on hate crimes in 2013, Perez-Darby's organization last year launched an information-gathering hotline on incidents involving bias—things like yelling a slur, which create fear but may not meet the strict definition of a crime under the law. The hotline's automated message tells callers who to call for help and asks them to leave a voice mail describing what happened. "No incident is too small to share," it says. The number to dial is 206-214-9834, but it hasn't received enough calls yet to offer any usable data, Perez-Darby said, and the group needs more funding to spread the word and pay a staffer to analyze the information that comes in.
Finally, what does Mayor Ed Murray—Seattle's first out gay mayor—plan to do about hate crimes? Spokesperson Viet Shelton called a homeless LGBTQ youth shelter "an idea worth discussing," but wouldn't commit one way or the other. He said the focus of the mayor's comments at the forum was that "it is important to have a police department that reflects the diversity and the demographic makeup of the community it serves." When I asked him about any other concrete solutions on the horizon, Shelton talked about bias-free police training—something already in the works.
Askini, of Gender Justice League, called the mayor's response "disappointing" and "tone-deaf."
"I don't think having more LGBTQ cops is the answer," Askini said. She pointed to Officer Cynthia Whitlatch, a lesbian police officer who's been placed on leave after arresting an elderly black man for no reason. "[Having more cops is] going to lead to more people of color and homeless folks being harassed and arrested, frankly."
"What I heard [at the forum]," Askini said, "is people are more interested in immediate solutions to address the issue, including things like more support for victims, more support for homeless LGBTQ youth, and more funding for community-based solutions and social and health services."
Developers like Vulcan are getting hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth in waived costs on permitting and infrastructure upgrades, Askini noted, getting animated over the phone. "Where is the $500,000 initiative on hate crimes on Capitol Hill? I can't even imagine what we would do with $500,000 as a community."