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Shooting At Pulse Nightclub Isn't Considered A Hate Crime. But Why?

The FBI declared the Pulse nightclub shooting an act of terror — but not a hate crime — despite the shooter targeting a gay club during Latin night.
Posted at 1:38 PM, Sep 29, 2017

Hate is a strong word. 

A year after a man killed dozens of people during Latin night at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, we're still hearing the word "hate" as something to defeat.

But according to the government, the Pulse nightclub shooting wasn't a hate crime. It was an act of terror.

The hate crime numbers for 2016 haven't been released yet, but it's likely the Pulse nightclub shooting won't have an impact on those numbers. The FBI said there's not a sufficient amount of evidence that the shooter acted out of hate, despite going into a gay club and killing 49 people and injuring 53 others.

"It makes me angry every single day," said Sara Grossman. Grossman is the communications manager for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which works to combat hate with community outreach.

On Oct. 7, 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence, brutally attacked and left to die. His death sparked national debate about hate crimes against the LGBTQ community. 

And on June 12, 2016, 32-year-old Christopher Andrew Leinonen — whose friends called him Drew —  was killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting. That hit home for Grossman, who became best friends with Leinonen in college.

"A lot of the work we've been doing at the Matthew Shepard is to really get hate crimes reported how they should be. There are a lot of barriers. A hate crime, when it's reported, has to be reported to the police, who first need to deem it as a hate crime. Then they need to send it to the FBI to investigate. Oftentimes, those reports get lost in the ladder. When they announced that Pulse wouldn't be counted toward the 2016 hate crime numbers, I was disappointed, because, what else could it have possibly been?" Grossman asked.

Grossman believes a terrorist attack and a hate crime can coexist in the same moment. Days after the Pulse attack, then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch echoed that notion.

"People often act out of more than one motivation. This was clearly an act of terror and an act of hate," Lynch said

So why won't these numbers reflect what the LGBTQ community endures? This is why: On the night of the attack, the shooter pledged allegiance to the leader of ISIS in a 911 call. The shooter was killed in a shootout and did not leave a note.

Based on the FBI's review of interviews and a review of the shooter's computer and electronic media, it concluded the shooter had been radicalized and no evidence pointed to him being gay or that the shooting was motivated by homophobia.

This conclusion came despite reports from men who said they communicated with the shooter on gay dating apps, and after a Univision report in which a man claimed to have had a two-month relationship with the shooter. That same man told the media the shooter may have harbored anger toward Puerto Rican gay men stemming from a sexual incident. 

Grossman explained how she thinks there are two types of crimes: crimes of opportunity and crimes that are bias-motivated by sexuality, skin color, nationality, sexuality or gender identity. She added that Latin night at a gay club seems to be a heavy intersection of people who are attacked in our country.

The LGBTQ community makes up about 2 percent of the population. According to the FBI, nearly 20 percent of all hate crimes in 2015 occurred because of sexual orientation or gender identity. That makes the LGBTQ community the hardest-hit, per capita. Even more alarming are the numbers of hate crimes that go unreported.

"Somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 hate crimes were reported last year, which seems like a pretty high number. But when you consider those who don't report, the reports that get lost in the paper pile, we think that the number is closer to 200,000. And that is a staggering number," Grossman explained. "A lot of people don't report because they are afraid of being revictimized. In a lot of cases, this sounds very similar to sexual assault. When your car is stolen, a policeman or woman isn't going to ask you what you were wearing or what you were doing at the time or how late you were out. We should never be revictimized or asked why it was our fault for being attacked," she added.

Yale Law School senior research scholar Frederick M. Lawrence wrote about why it's detrimental to not call it a hate crime. He said that it "... fails to validate the specific and deep harm caused to the target minority community. It renders the harm legally invisible, thus invalidating the pain of the community. It thereby inflicts a fresh wound on the victim community, this time coming from their fellow citizens."

Grossman strives to remove the red tape involved with reporting acts of hate — a mission she says isn't easy. But when the world has her down, she looks up to a friend who is still inspiring her to build a better future.

"I have a picture of Drew next to a picture of Matthew at my desk. It's a constant reminder of the work that needs to be done. But, you have to continue to live your life. If you live in fear, what life are you living? I continually think, 'Would Drew want me to go out? Would Drew keep himself inside if something like this happened to one of his friends?' The answer is no. He wouldn't. He would be enjoying his life. He would be dancing still," Grossman said.