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Amid Banner Years For Civil Rights, Gay Bias Killings Soar

5041015NEW YORK (CBS/AP) The last few years have seen an expansion of gay rights in America. Same-sex marriage is legal in three states and, barring legal obstacles, will be legal in at least three more by 2010.

But last year was also a tragic one for gays and transgendered people. The number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people killed in bias-motivated incidents increased by 28 percent in 2008 compared to the previous year, according to a national coalition of advocacy groups.

Last year's 29 killings was the highest recorded by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs since 1999, when it documented the same number of slayings, according to a report released Tuesday by the coalition.

"What we're also seeing, more disturbingly, is the increase in the severity of violence," said Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which coordinates the coalition.

Stapel theorized that at least some of last year's violence was backlash against issues that arose during the presidential campaign. She cited debates about same-sex marriage, the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and federal legislation that would ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as possible flash points.

"The more visibility there is the more likely we're going to see backlash, and that's exactly what we see here," Stapel said.

Overall, the number of victims who reported anti-LGBT violence in 2008 increased by two percent compared to 2007, said the New York-based coalition of programs in 25 states.

Coalition officials say their figures are more accurate than those from law enforcement agencies. As an example, they say, the FBI doesn't record bias crimes against transgender people because gender identity isn't covered by federal hate-crime law.

Also, victims sometimes are reluctant to report bias incidents to police because they don't want to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity and/or they fear bias from police, officials said.

Reports of physical abuse by police increased to 25 incidents last year from 10 in 2007, the report said.

Officials weren't sure whether reported increases were attributable to more people reporting incidents or an actual rise.

Meighan Bentz, a victim outreach advocate at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, which includes an anti-violence project, said, "I think it's a combination."

On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said there is a need for tougher U.S. hate crimes law to stop "violence masquerading as political activism."

(MySpace Photo)
Photo of Gwen Araujo taken from a MySpace tribute page. Araujo, a 17-year-old transgender woman from Newark, CA, was murdered by two East Bay men.

"Over the last several weeks, we have witnessed brazen acts of violence, committed in places that many would have considered unthinkable," Holder told the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

He cited separate attacks over a two-week period that killed a young soldier, an abortion provider and a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The violence, he said, "reminds us of the potential threat posed by violent extremists and the tragedy that ensues when reasoned discourse is replaced by armed confrontation."

In order to stop that violence, he said, Congress should pass an updated version of hate crimes legislation, to more effectively prosecute those who commit violent attacks based on gender, disability, or sexual orientation.

"We will not tolerate murder, or the threat of violence, masquerading as political activism," Holder said.

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