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Activists, lawmakers, lawyers call for culture change to combat hate

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A couple leaving a bar in downtown Austin Jan. 19 was attacked by two drunk men yelling slurs at them, they told police. Their faces and heads were bashed and kicked in. Both ended up in the hospital, bruised and bloody.

Spencer Deehring and Tristan Perry believe the sole reason they were attacked was because they were a gay couple holding hands in the street.

The attack, now being investigated by Austin police as a hate crime, galvanized the LGBTQ+ community and allies in Austin. Local business owners pooled together to offer an $11,000 reward for information on the alleged perpetrators. The Austin Police Department launched a new “aggravated assault unit,” with the hope of tackling this type of violent crime in the city.

'I guess it just takes a red wedding dress sometimes to get the community together'

The fear sparked by the attack spurred members of the LGBTQ+ community into action. A march to highlight the need for safe spaces in Austin will take place Saturday. The marchers will walk from the intersection of Fourth Street and Lavaca Street to the steps of the State Capitol. As of Friday afternoon, almost 200 people committed to going and almost 1,000 people showed interest on Facebook.

Steven Hyden, a small business owner and Texas State University student, is one of the organizers of the event. Twenty-nine-year-old Hyden, who prefers the pronouns “they” and “them,” moved to Austin from Tennessee with their fiancé and hoped for more acceptance in a city known to be more progressive.

“I came to the Austin-area because I was hoping to get better treatment here and it has been better, but when this attack happened, it really upset me because it made me feel like I’m going back into that fear that I was brought up on in these non-friendly cities,” they said.

Fueled by a desire for change, Hyden reached out to prominent members of the Austin LGBTQ+ community looking for support. At first, they say not many people jumped to the occasion. But then, Hyden declared they would put on their red wedding dress and march by themselves if they had to. Suddenly, there was a surge of support.

“I guess it just takes a red wedding dress sometimes to get the community together,” they laughed. Hyden hopes this march will help LGBTQ+ Austinites and allies to organize, raise awareness and create an urgency for change.

Handling hate crimes in Texas

What Deehring and Perry describe as a hate-filled attack is just the latest for a community that has historically been the target of violent crimes. More hate crimes were reported in Austin than any other Texas city in 2017, according to an FBI report and at the national level hate crimes spiked by 17 percent that year.

On Thursday, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the Equality Federation released their State Equality Index which scores states based on laws and policies that affect LGBTQ+ people and their families and protections in place to prevent discrimination. Texas was rated as “high priority to achieve basic equality.”

Austin has seen a series of violent and non-violent hate crimes in recent years. Amid the heated Bathroom Bill debate in Texas legislature, Austin saw two violent crimes against transgender women in a span of just a few months. In May 2017, Christi Long, also known as Christi Foxx Paris, a prominent Austin drag queen, was raped and attacked by a man wielding a hammer.

In July 2017, Stephanie Perdue, 50, was busy lobbying at the Capitol and planning her wedding when police say she was kidnapped and attacked by two people – a teen and his adult brother. Perdue was left shaken and had a bloodied lip, but she says in the moment she thought she was going to die.

“I turned all of my hurt into anger and took action,” she said. The day after she was attacked, Perdue arrived at the State Capitol to testify at a bathroom bill committee hearing. She then went from office to office meeting with every lawmaker on the committee to share her story.

Perdue’s case was resolved better than many. Her adult attacker got prison time for the assault. She says she owes it to the support she got from Austin police and the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. “In minority communities, we tend to be so afraid of the police because we feel like we’re not going to be heard or believed but, in my case, I was absolutely believed, and they supported me,” she said.

Prosecuting hate crimes

Legal experts in Texas say prosecution and conviction of a hate crime charge is extremely rare.

“We probably don’t see many convictions in part because it (motive) is a harder thing to prove than what a prosecutor would typically need to prove,” said Brian McGiverin with the Austin Community Law Center. Sometimes a suspect will clearly show motive, but sometimes the motive is more subtle, as is the case in most discrimination lawsuits.

McGiverin’s non-profit law firm focuses on civil rights cases, criminal justice policy, police excessive force cases and public housing. “Even in just a civil case, it’s hard to prove motive,” he said. In criminal cases, the burden of proof is far greater, and prosecutors must prove guilt to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

And then there’s the jury. “As a prosecutor, you have to worry about bias on part of the jurors as well,” McGiverin said. In certain communities, prosecutors have to worry about jury bias, he said.

Beth Payan, an Assistant District Attorney in Travis County, is one of two prosecutors in the county on the Hate Crimes Task Force. She says a prosecutor won't levy a hate crime charge without sufficient evidence to back up the claim. For other criminal charges, a prosecutor is not required to prove a person's state of mind beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury.

But, she says when a member of a protected group is attacked in a violent or non-violent way, the possibility that it was motivated by hate is not taken lightly. "In today's climate, I think its really important that we look at every aspect of a crime," she said.

The scope of the law is not the problem, McGiverin believes. “Simply by having the laws on the books, independent of deterrent value, is valuable," he said. But McGiverin says to truly affect change and eliminate hate from the culture, the focus should be directed at taking proactive measures in education, in colleges and in employment opportunities.

“Legal consequences — whether they’re civil or criminal — are just one leg of the stool and it’s important not to lose sight of that,” he said.

State Rep. Mary Gonzalez agrees with him. The Democrat from El Paso recently made history when she and four other State Representatives formed the first ever LGBT caucus in the Texas House of Representatives. “We (the caucus) have been talking about some hate crime work but a lot of it is already in statutes,” she said.

The caucus hopes to create institutional visibility, be a bridge for advocacy groups and push a proactive legislative agenda, Rep. Gonzalez said.

“When I first got elected in 2012, I didn’t know there would be five out members by now,” she said. The visibility created by the caucus has already helped change the culture in the Texas State Legislature, she said. The LGBT caucus will release its agenda for session on Tuesday.

But on Saturday, people will take to the streets, supporting a couple still recovering, and hoping for changes to culture and laws in Texas.

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