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June is meant to celebrate Pride but it also brings a spike in hate crimes to Utah

Marchers in the Pride Parade in Salt Lake City, June 5, 2022.
Ivana Martinez
Marchers in the Pride Parade in Salt Lake City, June 5, 2022.

As Pride Month opened, tens of thousands of Utahns took to the streets of Salt Lake City over the weekend to partake in the Pride festival and parade. And across the state, multi-colored flags flicker in the wind.

But the festivities took place as legislators wage a political battle to curb the rights of the very community Pride Month aims to celebrate.

In May, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, sent a letter to Disney asking them to label shows and movies featuring LGBTQ issues and characters as disturbing content. During the most recent state legislative session, lawmakers reintroduced a bill to ban gender-affirming health care for minors and passed a law to prohibit transgender girls from participating on school sports teams that match their gender identity.

Then there was a letter Rep. Kera Birkeland sent to schools with so-called guidance on transgender issues authored by an out-of-state group.

“At some point, it goes beyond the rhetoric,” said Paighten Harkins, a reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune. “I think that's what people are nervous about. What is the step beyond talking about this stuff?”

Harkins wrote on May 31 that hate crimes against LGBTQ people in Utah almost doubled in 2021 and spike each year in June. Now, in the thick of divisive politics, Harkins said community members fear another surge.

Three people were recently assaulted as they left a Pride event. During the attack, the suspect yelled hate speech at the victims. Because of that, police are investigating it as a hate crime.

If you have been a victim of a hate crime, the Human Rights Campaign urges you to get medical help, if needed, write down as many details of the crime as soon as possible, file reports and find support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: You start your article with the story of Provo’s Taylor Nelson. What did Taylor experience?

Paighten Harkins: Taylor rented this house in 2016 and put a pride flag up. And this was right when Donald Trump had been elected. It's a conservative town. He anticipated that the pride flag might go away. Somebody might take it. But nothing happened for years, until this last year when it got stolen once. They put it back up and then it got stolen again.

He was nervous. He had co-founded this inclusive theater space in Provo, and so he's somebody when you think of LGBTQ people in Provo, he's a more high-profile person. But when his pride flag got stolen, he said it's a small thing, but it's indicative of what he sees as a cultural shift where people are being less tolerant, less accepting of LGBTQ people.

PM: Does that constitute a hate crime? 

PH: It could. He didn't report it to the police. But it's possible that if prosecutors saw that, they could say it's a hate crime because it would be targeting all members of the LGBTQ community.

PM: What does the data say about how many hate crimes were directed at Utah’s LGBTQ community last year and during Pride Month in particular?

PH: So last year in Utah there were 42 compared to 22 the year before that. So that is a doubling from 2020 to 2021. And it's worth mentioning that the other subcategories of hate crimes also had large increases. Anti-religion hate crimes also almost doubled, there was at least a double-digit increase in anti-race hate crimes. There's about three reasons why this might be happening. One is just more police are reporting right now because Utah changed the way it reports crime stats in general. Basically, it's just more thorough. The other reason could be that with more awareness, people are reporting to the police more. Third is maybe more hate crimes are happening. The way the state has this data up on their hate crimes website is as a bar chart, and they have it broken down by months. And you can just see that June is this big orange square compared to all the months that are these little thin slivers. And there were 10 instances of some kind of crime that targeted the entire LGBTQ community in June of last year. That seemed telling.

PM: What does it tell us?

PH: June is Pride Month. It's a month where the focus is on LGBTQ rights and issues, and the way a lot of people do that is by putting pride flags out in front of their houses. So I don't know that these 10 crimes were targeting pride flags or anything like that, but it was some kind of targeted attack on LGBTQ people.

PM: You wrote that officials say hate crimes not only harm the victim but also have a chilling effect on the entire community. What do you mean by that?

PH: Experts have told me that if somebody assaults somebody, that is a traumatic incident. But if you are attacked because you are wearing a pride shirt or because you are gay or something like that, that harm is not only done to you but it's done to other members of your community. And it starts imbuing this fear in the rest of the community and making you change how you live your life.

PM: How has worry over divisive politics on LGBTQ issues heightened people's fear?

PH: I think people are nervous. I feel nervous sometimes when I see our legislature propose and pass bills banning trans girls from competing in sports of children with their same gender identity. When we have Sen. Mike Lee saying things like, we need to put disturbing content warnings on television shows that include LGBTQ characters. At some point, it goes just beyond rhetoric, and I think that's what people are nervous about. You know, what is the step beyond just talking about this stuff?

PM: Is there a reason for hope as we face the stark data you've uncovered?

PH: I think so. I went to Pride. I had a good time, maybe in the back of my head. I was a little nervous that something could happen, but I just kind of feel that way everywhere now. But I think there's always reason for hope. If there's not hope, what do we have?

KUER Morning Edition Associate Producer Leah Treidler contributed to this report.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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