Authored By: The Matthew Shepard Foundation (https://www.matthewshepard.org)
In 1998, then 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die in a field outside Laramie, Wyoming. His death shocked the nation, the media and ultimately the world. Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matt’s parents, established the Matthew Shepard Foundation in honor of his life and his passion for civil rights.
But what’s seldom known about Matt is the life he had prior to his death, and the previous struggles and attacks he had already endured.
Matt was a rape survivor. He was HIV positive. The journey that eventually guided him to Laramie was marked by depression, insecurity and struggles with self-acceptance and identity following his sexual assault — and at a time when there still wasn’t much help for Matt and others like him to access outside of friends and family.
In the nearly 20 years since Matt’s death, we’ve made tremendous progress politically and culturally for true equality for LGBTQ citizens. But not in the way we talk about and address sexual assault within the community — not nearly enough.
In the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s (NSVRC) 2012 Research Brief on “Sexual Violence & Individuals who identify as LGBTQ,” researchers determined that “numerous studies over the past two decades indicate that members of the LGBTQ community suffer disproportionate rates of sexual victimization compared to the general population.”
And this includes sexual assault by a partner. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from 2010 found that sexual minority respondents — or those who identify as LGBTQ+ — reported levels of intimate partner violence at rates equal to or higher than those who identify as heterosexual. The report found that 44% of lesbian women and 61% of bisexual women experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, with 26% and 37% of gay and bisexual men reporting the same, respectively.
But, as cited in NSVRC’s 2010 findings, “due to societal oppression of individuals and communities who identify as LGBTQ, some may be reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to service providers and researchers, making accurate statistics on the LGBTQ community challenging to obtain.” The likely consequence of this finding is the number of cases we can currently document are only a portion of those actually occurring.
Marriage equality is now law, but discrimination still persists. This threat to the security of LGBTQ+ citizens can’t be resolved at the altar; it affects housing, employment, education, access to healthcare, and other basic needs. It makes them vulnerable. It continues to make them targets.
How Sexual Assault Affects LGBTQ+ Victims
Discrimination against LGBTQ+ people increases exposure to sexual assault.
When minority groups such as LGBTQ+ citizens are discriminated against in the workplace, in renting or buying homes or in receiving adequate medical care, they are often put in situations that increase the likelihood of being the victim of sexual assault, as well as other forms of violence.
Specifically for transgender women of color, who are the victims of disproportionately higher rates of violence, finding employment and housing can be challenging in a society that does not accept or protect them. Circumstantially, many transgender women of color are forced into sex work as a means of survival. The risk of being sexually assaulted, raped or killed are substantially higher for this population. And because sex work is stigmatized and illegal, it can be almost impossible for transgender women to report these assaults or receive medical care out of fear of legal ramifications.
From NSVRC’s report: “Transgender and gender nonconforming people reported high rates of harassment, physical assault, and sexual assault in a variety of settings including but not limited to, schools, workplaces, prisons, and homeless shelters.” Many of these institutions, particularly shelters and prisons, are gender-specific and often disregard the identities and needs of transgender and gender nonconforming people.
The same goes for homeless LGBTQ+ youth, who account for up to 40% of overall homeless youth. In a study conducted by the Urban Institute exploring the issue of “survival sex” by homeless LGBTQ+ youth, researchers concluded that “youth experience violence and abuse from multiple sources, including families, exploiters, clients, strangers, peers, and law enforcement. Youth also experience violence at the hands of staff and clients at social service organizations and other locations that are intended to be safe.”
One result is that victims become used to a routine of sexual abuse and develop a distrust for the services that are meant to help. Over time, those who identify as LGBTQ+ and are subjected to this systematic abuse can begin to believe that it’s simply part of their life due to how they identify.
Cultural stigma and non acceptance can lead to revictimization and self-blame.
For those who identify as LGBTQ+ or are questioning their sexual orientation or identity, reporting a sexual assault can mean having to “out” themselves to family, friends and a community they may not feel is ready or willing to accept them as they are. Victims may fear that, by coming forward, they are subjecting themselves to being revictimized by the justice system, law enforcement and physicians who may not be accepting.
Cultural attitudes and politics that encourage lack of acceptance for LGBTQ+ people are damaging to the pursuit of justice, medical care and recovery options.
Non-acceptance can cause victims to believe they are to blame; that being sexually assaulted is a result of who they are, and that there is no reason to come forward or report their crime. Non-acceptance perpetuates a cycle of victim-blaming, and it also perpetuates the idea that LGBTQ+ people are second-class citizens. Bluntly, it makes them a target.
Sexual assault against LGBTQ+ victims can double as hate crimes.
Sexual violence can be used against members of the LGBTQ+ community as a hate crime. A hate crime (sometimes termed a “bias crime”) is defined by law as an act where the offender targets his or her victim specifically due to one or more personal characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or gender expression.
There are several cases in recent years of seemingly consensual sexual encounters ending in assailants using sexual force to attack a person because of their sexual orientation or how they identify. Hate crimes are unique in that they are designed to terrorize an entire demographic; they send a message that a group of people are not welcome due to one or more characteristics.
The issues that LGBTQ+ people face as victims of sexual assault and rape are as diverse as communities themselves. The first step in helping these victims is by being an outspoken advocate for equality and non-discrimination; to end the cycle of victimization we must Erase Hate. We must change the cultural attitude and status quo at all levels of civic engagement and democracy.
Properly training law enforcement and investigators to investigate sexual assault cases as potential hate crimes is also crucial. Justice cannot be achieved without the necessary cultural competency to understand the circumstances that affect the LGBTQ+ population.
For additional reference, the Matthew Shepard Foundation has outlined how to be an advocate for hate crimes victims.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation empowers individuals to embrace human dignity and diversity through outreach, advocacy and resource programs. We strive to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance. Visit MatthewShepard.org for more information.