Robert Richard Brice Kohler was walking his dog along leafy Vermont Avenue in Washington D.C. when he heard someone yell from behind, "Hey Snowflake! This is what a Trump America looks like, faggot!" Before he could turn completely around, four men had begun punching and throwing objects at him. Two of them wore hats that read, "Make America Great Again."
Kohler's assault comes amid a number of high-profile anti-gay attacks since Donald Trump's election. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a man shot pellets into a gay community center after telling the person at the front desk, "I wish you would all die." In Brooklyn, an attacker reportedly hurled anti-gay slurs and slashed two men with a knife inside a Crown Fried Chicken. A New York drag queen club owner was reportedly beat up in the early morning in San Diego for being gay; he later recorded a video on Facebook blaming the hateful atmosphere Trump had created for the attack. In Key West, two gay men were allegedly attacked while riding their bikes by a gay basher who proclaimed, "You live in Trump country now."
Confronted by a reporter last week about the rash of attacks on the LGBT community, White House press secretary Sean Spicer played down any links between Trump's rhetoric and gay bashings. "I think one of the points that we've made in previous statements is that this is not the way that we as Americans solve our differences," he said. When pressed by the reporter to clarify if he thought Trump's withdrawal of federal protections for transgender students was emboldening bigots, Spicer was incredulous. "I don't believe there is any connection between — I think that would be a stretch, to say the least."
In fact, past research has indicated that there may be a correlation between policies that restrict protections to LGBT communities and the mental and physical wellbeing of said communities. Studies have shown that LGB people who live in areas with high levels of anti-LGBT prejudice die twelve years earlier than peers in other communities. Another study found that LGB people living in states without anti-discrimination protections are five times more likely than those in other states to have two or more mental disorders.
While Trump hasn't directly shown animosity towards LGBT people in his speeches, he's surrounded himself with people who hold anti-gay views: Vice President Mike Pence wanted to use HIV / AIDS money to fund conversion therapy and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos helped the anti-gay Family Research Council establish its first Washington office. Their appointments arguably send a dog whistle to bigoted Trump supporters that LGBT people can be harassed with impunity.
Since November, groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Propublica have been working together to create a comprehensive database of hate crime incidents across the country. So far, they have recorded 1400 incidents, according to Heidi Beirich, who leads the SPLC's Intelligence Project. "From our perspective it certainly looks like there have been more hate crimes since the election," she told Broadly. "About a fifth of the attacks we've collected were done in Trump's name."
Gregory Herek, a professor of Social Psychology at the University of Irvine and expert on anti-gay violence, believes perpetrators of these kinds of attacks are looking to their peers for approval or permission — to the extent that they're thinking about their actions at all.
"A lot of of the time, what happens is impulsive behavior, but I think these attacks also occur against a societal backdrop that includes a certain acceptance or tolerance for various expressions of prejudice and hostility towards different groups, and that increases a sense of permission that people feel they have," he said.
Attempting to ascertain whether hate crimes against gay people are actually increasing under Trump, however, is a tricky endeavor. While crimes based on sexual orientation are compiled by the FBI, they're woefully under-reported; every year since the agency began tracking them in 1996, more than 80 percent of jurisdictions have reported "zero" hate crimes. In 2015, less than 12 percent of participating law enforcement agencies reported hate crimes at all, with the overwhelming majority of participating jurisdictions — 88.4 percent — failing to report a single incident.
Part of the problem is that hate crime legislation differs by state; in sixteen states, hate crime laws don't cover sexual orientation or gender identity while four states (Wyoming, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Indiana), don't have any hate crime laws on the books.
Even taking into account the lack of reporting standards, though, anti-LGBT incidents compiled by the FBI were shockingly high before Trump had even announced his candidacy. In 2015, law enforcement agencies reported 1,219 hate crimes against gays and lesbians and 118 hate crimes against those who were trans and gender nonconforming. That makes LGBT people more likely to be targeted for hate crimes than any other minority group.
Because of this, Herek believes focusing purely on whether attacks are increasing misses the bigger picture. "Somehow, that implies that this is only a problem so long as it's always getting worse, as if it isn't bad enough as it is," he said.
Herek has been studying gay bashings since the 1980s, when they were considered routine. "There wasn't a lot of outrage, and in the gay community, there wasn't even a sense that something could be done about it." It wasn't until the mid-80s that the National Gay Task Force (now the National LGBTQ Task Force) began compiling statistics across the country on anti-gay violence.
"Thirty years ago, people were beating up gay people, screaming, 'They're spreading AIDS!' while, ironically, getting blood all over themselves," he said. "It's hard to know whether those larger events in the culture were the cause of violence or if they were just being used as justification for something that would have happened regardless."
He noted that bigots who beat gay people on the street aren't typically newshounds or policy buffs, though they are broadly aware of what kinds of actions their peers would endorse.
"In the past, there have been crimes where the perpetrators made some reference to larger events going on, like gay marriage," he said. "But this is the first I've heard of anyone invoking the name of the president."