LGBTQ Asians push to stem hate crimes tide

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday August 1, 2022
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Andy Wong, left, joined Shanti Elise Prasad and Nicholas Gee outside the state Capitol for the Ignite Advocacy Day. Photo: Courtesy Andy Wong
Andy Wong, left, joined Shanti Elise Prasad and Nicholas Gee outside the state Capitol for the Ignite Advocacy Day. Photo: Courtesy Andy Wong

LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islander Californians are part of a coalition of community groups and state lawmakers pushing to stem a tide of hate crimes against API individuals and others that has been rising since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are focused this week on advancing two bills in the California Legislature collectively called the No Place for Hate Campaign.

The first, authored by state Senator Dave Min (D-Costa Mesa), is Senate Bill 1161. Called "Improving Public Transit Ridership Safety" it aims to protect LGBTQ+ people, cisgender women, and other vulnerable public transit riders. The legislation would require California's 10 largest transit agencies, including LA Metro, BART, and Orange County Transportation Authority, to recognize street harassment as a rider safety concern, gather data, and create non-carceral solutions to prevent hate and harassment that occurs in their vehicles or at transit stops. BART is among the bill's supporters.

The second is Assembly Bill 2448 by Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) and is titled "Expanding Civil Rights Protections at Businesses." If adopted, it would require large businesses to train their employees on how to protect, report, and respond to hate crimes for the safety of their customers.

"I would just have to say that now is the time for our state legislative leaders to act. This is such an important opportunity for them to combat such a widespread circumstance for our API community members who continue to face hate and harassment," said Andy Wong, a gay Chinese American who is director of advocacy for Chinese for Affirmative Action. "We really need them to step up and make sure these bills are passed, so we have concrete tools to continue to combat street harassment that is impacting not just the API community but women and girls, the LGBTQ community, and other impacted communities."

Janice Li, a queer woman who in January took over as director of the Coalition for Community Safety and Justice where she focuses on AAPI community-based safety initiatives, told the Bay Area Reporter she feels "as confident" as she can that the bills will become law.

"I do think given in the state Legislature and API legislative caucuses there is visibility and leadership on addressing API hate and violence across California, I think the time is now. I think the state Legislature gets that," said Li, who is also an elected member of the board that oversees BART. "I really see these two bills as putting an onus on both the public sector and recognizing the need for the private sector to step up. It is saying ... when it comes to addressing hate, sexual harassment, and street harassment we need everyone to be all in."

Ting told the B.A.R. in mid-July that he is "very optimistic" about seeing the two bills be approved by state lawmakers. The Senate Appropriations committee was set to vote on AB 2448 Monday, August 1, while the Assembly Appropriations committee has scheduled a vote on SB 1161 for August 3.

If approved then both bills will be sent to the committee's respective suspense files, with the next step for them to be sent to the floor of the chamber for a final vote. The deadline for sending bills to Governor Gavin Newsom to sign is August 31.

"Hate crimes, unfortunately, have been on the rise," said Ting, as for why the legislation is needed.

Reported hate crimes in California increased 32.6% from 1,330 in 2020 to 1,763 in 2021, according to a report compiled by the California Attorney General's office and released in late June. Anti-Asian bias events rose from 89 in 2020 to 247 in 2021, an increase of 177.5%, noted the report.

One of the "biggest issues" for those trying to stem the increase in hate crimes, noted Ting, has been getting accurate reports on such incidents. He noted that in the hate crimes report for last year, several counties in the state reported no such incidents had occurred. They were relatively rural counties like Alpine and Calaveras.

It points to problems related with how such incidents are reported, Ting suggested.

"All I can think is that people didn't want to report that they were the victims of a hate crime or their incidents weren't identified as a hate crime," said Ting.

Data collected over the last two years by the Chinese for Affirmative Action, AAPI Equity Alliance and San Francisco State University's Asian American Studies Department backs up that contention. The groups launched the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center in March 2020 and received reports on 11,500 hate incidents across the U.S. over the last two years.

An analysis of that data released in July noted that two in three reported incidents involve harassment, such as hate speech or inappropriate gestures, and cannot be considered hate crimes. California, with 4,333 incidents, accounted for the largest number of incidents reported to the center.

"The majority of hate incidents are non-criminal behaviors that contribute to an unwelcoming environment, such as spitting or the use of racial slurs," noted the report. "Many formal federal and state datasets often only capture hate crimes. By reporting on the broader category of hate incidents, Stop AAPI Hate is able to shed light on the non-criminal incidents that comprise the majority of hate incidents that AAPI communities face on a daily basis."

The report didn't break down the respondents by LGBTQ demographics, though 3% did identify as nonbinary. It did note "AAPI individuals who are also female, nonbinary, or LGBTQIA+ experience hate incidents that target them for their multiple identities."

Wong, 42, who lives in San Francisco's Lower Nob Hill neighborhood, told the B.A.R. that he had been verbally harassed over the last two years on several occasions walking near his apartment. He added that he didn't bother reporting them to police since he wasn't violently attacked and verbal harassment doesn't receive a police response.

"Since the start of the pandemic, I have been the target of a number of racist incidents. People telling me to go back to China," recalled Wong. "I was running an errand and someone passed by and said, 'China virus.' It was very subtle and abrupt. It happened so quickly; they just kept walking past me."

Such incidents may not be physically harming but they can have an impact on a person's mental health and well-being, said Wong. It is why the Stop AAPI Hate coalition wants to see California officials take a more concerted response to addressing street harassment.

"This has never been done in California or any other state, which is to really lay the groundwork for the first-of-its-kind public health movement to end street harassment," said Wong. "Public health movements are not quick and easy; change in people's behavior takes time. We are taking this approach because the data shows us most incidents are not criminal. You can't solve it through the criminal justice system."

Pre-pandemic Wong had been subjected to verbal harassment while riding a San Francisco Muni bus. Another rider yelled at him, "Fuck you, faggot."

"I did not feel safe," recalled Wong. "I ignored him and looked down. He eventually left the bus."

Need for legislation

With 76% of the incidents reported over the last two year to the Stop AAPI Hate center having occurred in public spaces like the street, on public transit, or in businesses, it illustrates the need for the package of legislation before California legislators, argued Wong. In terms of addressing harassment on the state's public transit agencies, Wong pointed to the effectiveness of BART's "Not One More Girl" campaign launched last year to stop the harassment of young female riders and other women on the Bay Area regional transit system.

Such a campaign is one that state leaders and transit officials should be funding and replicating on other transit systems, contended Wong.

"Now we have the data that it improved the sense of safety for women and girls. There was less reporting of sexualized harassment," said Wong. "Their public education initiative helped to create a better sense of safety on BART."

Li noted that the campaign came out of a community-based drive to address gender-based harassment and violence on BART. At the helm of it were straight, LGBTQ, and nonbinary young girls who pushed the transit agency to take action.

"What I love about the marketing campaign is it centered transgender, nonbinary, and LGBTQ folks as part of that campaign," said Li, who told the B.A.R. as a frequent rider of public transit she has experienced harassment herself and seen other passengers, particularly elderly Asian riders, be harassed. "I have seen many times other riders saying, 'Speak English, you are in America.' That kind of harassment, unfortunately, just is really commonplace."

Since asking on its Passenger Environment Surveys, "Have you experienced gender-based sexual harassment in the last six months at BART?" beginning in October 2020, those answering "Yes" have fallen from a high of 12% in the first half of 2021 to 8% in April through June of this year, according to the data BART posts online.

"We need to work together because we know this is one aspect of safety that impacts LGBTQ folks and women riding transit," said Li, who is seeking reelection this November to her BART board seat representing San Francisco's western neighborhoods.

State funding for anti-hate programs

The advocacy around the two bills comes after California awarded $30.3 million in early July to 12 organizations to aggressively address hate crimes and provide services to victims. The state has funded $110 million in anti-hate programs over the last year and established a Commission on the State of Hate, which is the first statewide commission to monitor and track hate crimes and is tasked with making policy recommendations to state lawmakers and agency officials.

"It comes as no surprise that as the flames of hatred and bigotry have been stoked in our society, acts of cowardice and violence have increased at an alarming rate. In California, we are investing millions to prevent this hate from taking hold in our communities. We simply will not tolerate intolerance," stated Newsom in announcing the latest round of grants.

Among the myriad organizations that have received "Stop the Hate" funding from the California Department of Social Services Civil Rights, Accessibility and Racial Equity Office are Chinese for Affirmative Action ($80,000) and the Equality California Institute ($125,000), the educational arm of the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group. The Translatin@ Coalition in Los Angeles was awarded $3,210,144.

While "incredibly grateful" for the financial assistance toward addressing anti-Asian racism, more is still needed to be done to fully resolve the issue, said Wong, such as passing the two bills lawmakers are considering.

"We also know there is a lot more our elected leadership can do in addressing hate and racism in our state," he said. "We believe these measures to combating street harassment would be another positive step."

For more information about the No Place for Hate Campaign, visit its website.

The State of California offers help for victims or witnesses to a hate crime or hate incident. This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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