LGBTQ Hispanics in Miami suffer homophobic and transphobic violence in silence

©Miami Herald

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MIAMI — She was walking to her apartment in Little Havana when a stream of verbal insults, threats and harassment made her feel like she was back in her native Colombia.

“Faggot, whore, AIDS carrier people like you must be six feet under,” the four men following her shouted at Irlanda, a transgender immigrant. She quickly managed to get into her home as beer bottles were thrown her way. One smashed through the kitchen window.

A neighbor called the police. The suspects were detained. But ultimately no charges were filed because Irlanda could not identify which one had damaged the property, said the 36-year-old, who identified herself with a pseudonym because she fears rejection if people find out that she is not a cisgender woman.

“I have several friends who have been beaten and attacked even in Miami Beach,” Irlanda said. “Most of us don’t call the police. By the mere fact that you are trans, they are already prejudging you. They assume that one is on the wrong track.”

Her testimony illustrates a trend in Miami-Dade County that is now backed by data for the first time. Latino immigrants in the LGBTQ community are sometimes victimized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and, when they are, most do not report the crimes to police out of fear, shame, or distrust in the judicial system.

It is one of the conclusions that emerges from a comprehensive Florida International University study, titled “Anti-LGBTQ Hate Crimes in Miami,” which was made public on this week — the result of a collaborative effort with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, the Miami-Dade Police Department and SAVE Inc.

Over the course of three years, the researchers interviewed 400 individuals from the Latino LGBTQ community who had suffered what they perceived as a hate crime in Miami-Dade County. In 85% of the incidents, the victims did not report to police what they experienced, the study concluded. And 95% of victims reported being victimized because of their queer identities.

“It was heartbreaking to listen to these people, their struggles and lack of support they had. They have to hide their true experiences,” said the study’s author, Besiki Luka Kutateladze, an FIU Criminology associate professor who specializes in prosecutorial reform. “My biggest surprise was how little these crimes are reported.”

Local judicial authorities knew that the number of crimes reported by the LGBTQ community is underreported; the study’s findings verified this thesis, said State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

“Sadly, in many people’s eyes, crimes that go unreported are crimes that did not happen, and that kind of victimization is utterly tragic,” Fernandez Rundle said.

According to the study, out of 23 hate crimes processed by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office between 2005 and 2019, 11 involved homophobic and transphobic prejudices; six were anti-Semitic or Islamophobic, five were caused by racial or ethnic bias and one was motivated by bias against a mentally ill homeless person.

In 2020, the Hate Crimes Unit has investigated and/or filed 22 cases, said the State Attorney’s office.

Implemented with a $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, the study was based on interviews with victims and lawyers, as well as prosecutorial case file reviews.

Originally, 875 people were screened, of which 400 met the criteria to participate: being over 18 years old, residing in Miami, being Hispanic, identifying as part of the LGBTQ community and having been victims of hate crimes. Almost 90% of the interviews were conducted in Spanish, an indicator of the limited English-language proficiency of gay Latino crime victims.

Some of the key research findings:

— 30% of the 400 surveyed victims experienced physical or sexual assault.

— 52% of physical assaults are perpetrated by nonstrangers.

— 35% of reported incidents result in an arrest.

— 23% or reported incidents resulted in prosecution, but not necessarily as a hate crime.

“These crimes occur, but the criminal justice system fails to detect them,” said Kutateladze. “We have to find out how to detect them better, because if we don’t, we cannot prevent them.”

Sociological, psychological and cultural factors, as well a person’s immigration status, all contribute to silence the homophobic and transphobic violence suffered by Latino LGBTQ immigrants, experts said.

“There may be fear of the judicial system and LGBTQ individuals may feel as though the criminal justice system will not support them,” said Fernandez Rundle. “Additionally, some members of the LGBTQ community may not be out to their family members or friends and, as a result, reporting that they were a victim of a hate crime could have potentially profound effects.”

Francesco Duberli, executive director of Survivors’ Pathway, a center that provides social services to crime victims from underserved populations in Miami, said that many LGBTQ Latinos living in Miami emigrated because they were victimized in their home countries. He indicated that, “justice there did not give them any results, but it became a tool of oppression.”

One of the gay immigrants interviewed in the FIU study, for example, said that he was physically attacked by police in the Dominican Republic when he went to the authorities to file a report, Kutateladze said.

That internalization of the oppression suffered by some immigrants is manifested in the way the Hispanic LGBTQ community engages with the judicial system in Miami, Duberli said.

“There is a paradox: Although we have managed to build a city where we feel safe and welcome as an LGBTQ community, we also live with an extremely machista and homophobic culture in the immigrant community,” said Duberli, chairman of Miami-Dade County’s Hispanic Affairs Advisory Board. “We must confront the issue of homophobia among Latin American immigrants.”

Hate crimes in Florida are grossly underreported, in part, because of the stigma associated with them, experts say.

According to 2018 FBI statistics, the latest year with data available, Florida reported 141 hate crimes, in comparison to 523 and 455 in New York and Texas, respectively, states with similar population.

“One of the major issues in Florida is that gender identity is not covered by the Florida Hate Crime Law,” said David Barkey, the Anti-Defamation League Senior and Southeastern Area Counsel. “If someone commits a crime because the victim is transgender, the perpetrator cannot be charged for a hate crime for that incident.”

Advocating for changes in the hate crime statutes is one of seven policy recommendations the study makes for the State Attorney’s Office and Miami-Dade Police. Another proposal is to establish a hate crime detection protocol for emergency dispatchers, patrol officers, police detectives and prosecutors.

“If first responders don’t get the initial report right, evidencing that the person was targeted because of their sexual orientation, it is unlikely that it will be prosecuted as a hate crime,” Barkey said.

Fernandez Rundle said she plans to create a hate crimes task force with members of the LGBTQ community and other community stakeholders. She added that another recommendation that is possible to implement quickly is to increase training of criminal justice practicioners and police to better identify hate crimes and understand the concerns of LGBTQ victims.

Kutateladze, the study’s author, concluded that many of the municipal police departments in Miami-Dade “are not progressive” on the LGBTQ front. At the same time, the perception of victims interviewed is that, “they don’t think the police cares or understands LGBTQ issues.”

While the study focused solely on the Latino LGBTQ community, “the concerns raised cross over to multiple races, ethnicities and religions,” Fernandez Rundle said. “The fear of reporting crimes in not isolated to the LGBTQ community.

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©2020 Miami Herald