The Veil of Hurt

Magazine cover reading "The quiet epidemic: Gay-baiting as right-wing tactic. Gay-baiting is new in Southern politics. There is reason to believe that it will replace racism and anti-communism on the top of the bag of tricks of conservative Southern politicians."

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 5, "The Quiet Epidemic: Gay-baiting as Right-wing Tactic." Find more from that issue here.

I had completed all of the requirements for the Ph.D. at one of Virginia's state universities, including a first draft of a dissertation. The first two readers of the paper thought that the second chapter was particularly good, and was probably publishable as an article in one of the scholarly journals; needless to say, I changed that chapter hardly at all in the next draft. Between the time that the professors read the first and second draft, they came to believe that I was a homosexual. 

My whole graduate program collapsed at that point. The chapter previously thought publishable was savaged. The paper was not good enough — could not be revised. Although the professors did not directly confront me with their prejudices, they conveyed their sentiments through indirect comments and incongruous criticisms of the paper itself. I was cold-shouldered, blacklisted, and all but thrown off campus. My adviser strongly resisted writing any kind of reference for me. Finally, he wrote something (insisting that it be confidential): obviously a "He was a student here, but I hardly knew him" kind of letter that could not possibly be of any value to me professionally. Having spent many years preparing for a professional career, but with no faculty support for my aspirations, I am now all but unemployable. I do not have any significant prior work experience. 

I finally found a job as a clerk in a local department store. It did not take the spying and inquiring store detective long to reach the belated conclusion of the professors. He quickly spread his suspicions among other store employees. Young employees were told to avoid talking to me. I became the subject of vicious and unrelenting gossip. Insulting stage-whispered remarks were made for my benefit. Although the job wouldn't tax the intellect of a junior high student, I found that I couldn't cut it. Fearing for my sanity, I quit after two months. 

I have now been unemployable

for many months. Leaving aside the issue of homosexuality, no one wants to hire an applicant with advanced graduate training for an unskilled position. I have now developed a love-hate feeling for Richmond and the Commonwealth. The many virtues of our area are all but cancelled out for me by the narrow-minded, self-righteous, mean-spirited, intolerance of all too many of our people. 

— anonymous letter to the Richmond City Commission on Human Relations 


Like the citizens of most American communities, particularly in the South, most proper Richmonders pretend that homosexuals could not possibly be native to their charming and innocent city, and that in the unlikely event that such people were to find themselves in our community, they would be treated like all visitors, with the most charitable of Southern civility. 

According to a survey of the views of homosexuals in Richmond, Virginia, which we conducted in 1984, nothing could be further from the truth. In conjunction with the Richmond City Commission on Human Relations, we sampled opinions from 508 diverse individuals living or working in Richmond who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Our questionnaire asked for a variety of information about their personal characteristics; their encounters with discrimination, harassment, and abuse; their confidence and trust in sundry community services and institutions; and the extent to which they publicly disclose their sexual orientation. Eighty-two percent of the respondents were white.* 

The results of our study, like the words of our anonymous letter writer, suggest that many gays and lesbians see life in Richmond as anything but charitable and civil. One of the key items of the questionnaire asked each respondent to summarize his or her experience with mistreatment in various aspects of Richmond life. The answers indicate that discrimination occurs with astonishing frequency (see table 1).** 

It is important that the highest number of complaints occurred in basic areas of life: public accommodations, employment-seeking services, routine health care, educational institutions, and opportunities for religious counseling. Finding and keeping housing proved to be the most substantial problem for many homosexuals. Thirty-two percent reported discrimination in getting and/or holding rental housing as individuals, followed by 23 percent who reported discrimination when they tried to rent housing with a roommate of the same sex. In almost every instance, white homosexuals reported more problems attributable to their sexual orientation than did black homosexuals. The small number of people reporting problems with lending institutions is due principally to the feet that few had sought loans from such institutions. 

Discrimination in the workplace was the second major item of concern listed by our respondents (see table 2). Almost one-third — 31 percent — reported they were not treated as equal among heterosexual co-workers. Twenty-eight percent said they were harassed by co-workers and 25 percent reported being harassed by supervisors. There were seven specific forms of on-the-job discrimination, harassment, or intimidation in which 15 percent or more of the respondents reported incidents. 

Perhaps the most alarming finding in our study was the extent of violence against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals (see table 3). A third of the sample — 156 people — said that they had been physically attacked or intimidated by heterosexuals in some fashion at least once because of their sexual orientation. 

Because of the reported prevalence of discrimination and violence, the attitudes of the local government as a protector of civil rights are especially important in this study. Unfortunately, the respondents to the survey expressed extreme dissatisfaction with their treatment by public officials in Richmond (see table 4). Eighty-seven percent thought their concerns were never or rarely addressed adequately by city government. Similarly, 84 percent felt that they are treated unfairly under existing laws, and 78 percent said they receive less than equal treatment from local law enforcement officials. 

The study also shows a disturbing degree of alienation and distrust for the law, local government, and the heterosexual community. It should come as no surprise that 16 percent of the sample said they were very alienated from Richmond's heterosexual community, and 70 percent felt at least some alienation. When asked to compare the quality of life in Richmond with that in other cities, just over half of our respondents rated Richmond in some degree unfavorably. 

We consider one finding of our study especially disappointing. Among those institutions the respondents singled out as culpable are two in which anti-discrimination statutes are unlikely to have any measurable effect: religious institutions and the families of gays and lesbians. How can we expect fair and compassionate standards of treatment from government if justice is withheld by the very fountainheads of moral law? 

The study gave no explanation for one surprising finding. Black people consistently reported lower percentages of mistreatment based on their homosexuality. We have three possible explanations. First, black gays and lesbians may attribute some discrimination to their race instead of their sexual orientation. The survey did not ask questions which could separate the two forms of discrimination clearly. Second, whites may be more aware of discriminatory acts based on their homosexuality because they have higher expectations of democratic pluralism in the community. Third, the white community as a whole may be less tolerant of homosexuality and therefore more prone to engage in or permit discrimination. 

Faced with discrimination, the vast majority of the respondents to the survey reported that they find it necessary to modify their behavior to avoid unfavorable reaction from the larger community (see table 5). Even when dealing with financial institutions, three-fifths said they changed the way they behave to try to avoid discrimination. Four-fifths said they had to alter their behavior in their family or workplace. 

Since 1983, three similar studies have been conducted elsewhere, and all lend credence to our findings. The first, conducted by the Alexandria, Virginia, Human Rights Commission and the Alexandria Community Gay Association, used a questionnaire adapted from the one used in Richmond. The results were astonishingly similar (see table 6). The other two comparable studies are one undertaken in 1984 by the National Gay Task Force, which combined data from 1,420 gays and 654 lesbians in seven cities; and "the Boston Project," a survey of 1,340 gays and lesbians in Boston. One parallel between the Richmond study and the surveys of other cities was the shocking rate of violence reported against gays and lesbians. In Richmond, 35 percent of males and 28 percent of females reported being attacked because of their homosexuality; in Boston, the figure was 25 percent overall; in the study of seven cities, 28 percent of males and 36 percent of females reported being the victims of violence. 

Striking as the results of the Richmond survey are, it is likely that many of the numbers presented here underestimate the actual magnitude of the problem for at least two reasons. First, only 21 percent of our sample said that they reveal their sexual identity publicly, and the rest consequently may escape some malevolence at the hands of heterosexuals. For example, our survey showed that those who are openly gay at work have more than twice the risk of being attacked physically or verbally. Second, many victims of discrimination repress their memories of insulting or painful episodes. 

The report to the Richmond City Commission on Human Rights concludes with recommendations of a number of steps that should be taken to bring unqualified citizenship to sexual minorities. The responsibilities entailed in meeting these recommendations fall to government, commerce and industry, the media, health care providers, educational institutions, labor unions, professional associations, religious institutions, family members, and gays and lesbians themselves. 

First and foremost, we must have federal and state human rights laws which protect everyone, including homosexuals. Next, we need to repeal all present laws which single out homosexuals for disadvantageous differential treatment and those laws which seek to regulate private sexual behavior among consenting adults. 

Essential too is that we offer realistic sex education to children, including the facts about homosexuality. Similarly, we must educate and train our police and other human-services workers so that they may carry out their responsibilities in a more equitable manner. Also essential is establishing local working committees of homosexual leaders with the police, housing industry, religious institutions, and so forth. And there is a crying need to create the means to control violence perpetrated against the homosexual community. 

Finally, we must in more imaginative ways encourage the families of homosexuals to assume responsibility for finding out more of the facts about homosexuality, renouncing the myths and prejudices about gays and lesbians, and attempting to offer greater understanding and support to their homosexual family members. 

Whatever the flaws of this particular inquiry, our fondest hope is that it and studies like it elsewhere will serve our communities by stimulating informed dialogue. Our further wish is that this dialogue may lead us closer to freedom for those who have been excluded, with no diminution of the liberties of others. 



* The findings presented here are excerpted from the original 106-page report presented in April 1985 to the Richmond Commission on Human Relations. 

** Percentages throughout this article are based on the numbers of people who gave answers to given questions. Inapplicable or missing data are excluded. 


Table 1. Percent Reporting Discrimination in Selected Community Spheres

                                   Total                             Race

                                                                        White   Black

                                   %                                  %         %

Private Rental                            32                                34       25

Renting with Same-Sex Mate     23                                24       13

Restaurant Services                    23                                24       18

Employment Services                21                                23       19

Routine Health Care                  18                                18       17

Education/Schools                   18                                18       13

Hotel/Motel Accommodations 18                                18       15

Buying a Home                         15                                19       1

Religious Counseling                 17                                19       4

Mental Health Services              14                                15       12

Public Housing                          11                                5         11


(taxi, plane, bus, train, etc.)        10                                10       7

Emergency Health Services       6                                  5         6

Banks/Savings and Loan           6                                  6         5

Funeral/Burial Arrangements    5                                  5        4

Food Stamps                             4                                  *         *

Rape Counseling                       3                                  *         *

Welfare/Public Assistance         3                                  *         *

Credit Card Companies             4                                  *         *

Mortgage Companies/Private
Lending Institutions                  3                                  *         *

* Percent of those reporting discrimination is less than 5%


Table 2. Percent Reporting Selected Types of Discrimination in the Workplace

                                                                 Total             Race

                                                                                      White   Black

                                                                 %                  %         %

Not treated as equal among 

heterosexual co-workers                           31                 34        17

Harassed by co-workers                           28                 28        28

Harassed by supervisors or superiors       25                 25        25

Didn’t get a job you were qualified for     24                 25        23

Difficulty maintaining job security            22                 17        23

Didn’t get a promotion you deserved       21                 21        21

Fear for your physical safety                     18                 17        21

Fired or asked to resign                            14                 14        14

Lost customers or clients                          14                 14        12

Received poor work performance

evaluations                                               14                 14        11

Received unfavorable job references        13                 13        12

Difficulty getting a desired transfer           11                 9          12

Barred from practicing your trade or

profession                                                7                   6          9


Table 3. Percent Reporting Being Attacked or Abused

                                       Total       Sex                               Race

                                                      Male       Female          White    Black

                                       %            %            %                  %          %

Ever Been Attacked        33           35           28                 33          30


Table 4. Perception of Treatment by Local Government

                                                                 Total             Race

                                                                                      White    Black

                                                                 %                  %          %

Gay/Lesbian Issues Never or Rarely

Adequately Addressed by City 

Government                                             87                 88          80

Receive Less Than Equal Protection

Under Current Law                                  84                 87          73

Receive Less Than Equal Treatment 

From City Police                                      78                 78          76


Table 5. Percent Reporting They Alter Their Behavior In Order To Avoid Negative Reactions



Family                                   79

Workplace                            79

Religious Institutions            76

Public Accommodations       76

Educational Institutions        75

Recreation                            73

Neighborhood                      72

Retail Services                       71

Legal Services, Courts           66

Government Services           65

Health Services                     63

Housing                                62

Financial Institutions            61


Table 6. Comparison of Reported Discrimination in Richmond and Alexandria

                                                                                         Richmond               Alexandria

                                                                                         %                            %

Not Treated As Equal Among Heterosexual Co-workers 31                            30

Harassed By Co-Workers                                                 28                            29

Harassed By Supervisors or Superiors                              25                            29

Discouraged From Renting with Same-Sex Roommate    23                            19

Restaurant Services                                                           23                            20

Disclose Their Sexual Orientation to Everyone at Work  21                            16

Hotel/Motel Accommodations                                        18                            20

Routine Health Care                                                         18                            20