When Beth Zemsky was 5 years old, she heard several children on the school playground call her brother a “fag” after he fell down. At the time, she thought the word meant klutz.
“I knew a fag was something you didn’t want to be,” Zemsky said.
She told her story to about two dozen people at a hate crimes panel Friday afternoon in Coffman Memorial Union’s Campus Club.
The panel, part of the Spring Pride Week events scheduled through Wednesday, was designed to raise awareness about the frequency and severity of hate crimes in Minnesota and throughout the country.
“We learn to accept things that are clearly unacceptable,” Zemsky said. “It’s the kind of thing that allows these crimes to happen.
Zemsky, director of the GLBT Programs Office, said discrimination and bias against homosexuals and bisexuals on campus is a huge problem.
Forty-four percent of all students on the Twin Cities campus have been harassed in some way, Zemsky said, citing a University study. But the percentages increase dramatically when in reference to homosexuals. One hundred percent of lesbians questioned said they experience harassment. On average, 71 percent of homosexual men, 79 percent of bisexual women, and 64 percent of bisexual men have also been harassed, Zemsky added.
The experiences have caused Zemsky and others to hide their feelings of affection in public.
“It’s not about internalized homophobia,” she said. “It’s about, ‘Am I going to get hurt?'”
Hate crimes — which include incidents of violence against people based on their race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability or national origin — are often never reported to police.
According to a study performed by the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council, documented cases of violence against the Minnesota GLBT community increased by 4 percent in 1995.
Acts of hate will most likely increase at the GLBT student association because of the attention the coming out episode of “Ellen” has been getting, said Megan Thomas, GLBT association member.
She said that every year the number of hate incidents depend on whether GLBT issues are more visible.
Otherwise, she said the GLBT student association gets four to five hate letters a year. “It usually comes in an unmarked envelope,” Thomas said.
Thomas said the most recent reported act of hate at the University occurred in Frontier Hall last month when homophobic comments were written on dry erase boards.
Statewide incidents decreased from 307 in 1995 to 280 in 1996, but Minnesota Department of Public Safety records show the severity of the offenses has increased.
Assaults caused injury or death to 51 victims in the state of Minnesota in 1996.
However, the actual totals might be considerably higher. Many times, because of fear or other circumstances, incidents that are reported to GLBT organizations aren’t reported to police, said Mort Ryweck, state project coordinator for the League of Minnesota Human Rights Commissions.
But Zemsky said she understands that many crimes aren’t reported because it involves “coming out of the closet.”
“Unless (crimes) are reported to police on the official form, they don’t count as a statistic,” Ryweck said.
Ryweck also discussed the responsibility police officers have when confronted with crimes that victims feel might have been prompted by hate.
If someone suspects crimes are hate-motivated, the police are required to report them as such.
“If you differ with the police officer’s judgment on the episode, he or she is required to put down your version as well as his or her own,” Ryweck said. “Otherwise the statistics get skewed.”
In cases of hate crime, the court has the authority to stiffen penalties.
But the solution to hate crimes begins with teaching children that you shouldn’t hate people that are different, said LaRue Fields, advocacy administrator for the Minneapolis Urban League, Inc., and former University women’s basketball coach.
“We need to break down some barriers and start working on the next generation,” she said.
Fields, who said she struggled with issues of her own identity before coming out, said she now understands and accepts the harm she puts herself into by fighting for these particular causes. She said she is in the battle for the long haul.
“I’ve evolved into a person that is different from the one I was as a young adult,” she said. “That’s my responsibility as a community leader to ride that.
“I’d die for the cause.”
Staff Reporter Nancy Ngo contributed to this report.