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How Can Law Enforcement Keep from Outing Victims?

Police officer
Thomas Hawk/Flickr

LGBTQ victims of hate violence and domestic assault fear how police will protect their identities–and with good reason.

The phones for the 24-hour hotline at the New York Anti-Violence Project ring about once every three hours. That's about 3,000 calls every year from LGBT victims of violence who are looking for aid.

It's far less than the actual number of queer victims out there, says AVP executive director Beverly Tillery.

"People are not willing to report hate violence," she tells Out. "They are not willing to report to the police because of attitudes and concerns about the police themselves--about the institution. And people are concerned about what is involved in an investigation--and how that may potentially out them."

When it comes to "outing"--where a person's sexual or gender identity is revealed against their will--local law enforcement and media are some of the worst offenders. After the shooting deaths of 49 clubgoers at Orlando LGBT nightclub Pulse this summer, families of both victims and survivors found out about their loved ones' sexual identity for the first time. Sometimes, they found those reports before they even knew if a son, a brother, or a daughter was still alive.

Many early reports ran the risk of labeling the victims whether or not they were queer or straight, based on the fact that Pulse was a "gay" nightclub.

"Reporters want to tell a sensational story," Tillery says. "Just because someone was in the Pulse nightclub does not mean anything other than they were in a gay nightclub."

When assault victims are outed, Tillery says, the consequences go well beyond just the trauma of reporting their attack.

"Victims could lose relationships, whether it's with their family of origin or friend. It could impact their work relationships or job protection. All these are real and legitimate concerns."

She recalled a federal lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal in Tennessee. In 2007, Johnson City police arrested 40 men in a popular gay-cruising site. Officers took photos of the men on their personal phones, and the police chief released the photos along with a press release to local papers. After the photos were published, several men lost their jobs. One man killed himself.

While the men in the Tennessee case were not the victims AVP typically handles, the outcome illustrates how careless, or outright discriminatory, law enforcement can be when handling cases that involves LGBT people.

Tillery encourages law enforcement and the media to "think of ways to capture what has happened" while not "making any additional assumptions."

"Understanding when someone's identity is relevant and not relevant can be very hard," Tillery says. "It can be true that identity may not be relevant--sometimes it's absolutely not relevant--but understanding that distinction and acting accordingly can avoi some instances of people being outed unnecessarily."

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