Pablo Alvarez sat on a worn couch in the lesbian and gay center at Cal State Long Beach. Next to him was a table covered with flowers and candles, what was left of a campus memorial for Matthew Shepard, the gay college student beaten to death in Wyoming last month.
Alvarez had dismantled the memorial a few days earlier. It was dark when he began his task and he was alone. He remembers suddenly feeling frightened, frightened enough to get a friend to help him.
"There I was, taking down the rainbow flag, a perfect target," he recalled, his shoulders wrapped with the same gay pride flag to ward off the chill of an overzealous air conditioner.
For gay men and women, especially young ones like 21-year-old Alvarez, Shepard's much publicized death was a brutal reminder of their vulnerability. Gays may be more assimilated and accepted than they've ever been in American society, but they remain leading targets of hate crimes.
In Los Angeles County, anti-gay incidents have consistently ranked as the second most common type of bias crime reported, after racially motivated incidents.
Some of the attacks have been just as vicious as the one on Shepard, who was pistol-whipped and tied to a fence post, allegedly by two young men he had met in a bar.
There was Dennis Phung, beaten to death in 1996 in his Hollywood apartment by two transient teenagers he had hired as photo models. They used a claw hammer and--to make sure there was no doubt about their motive--left a mask on his head with the words "gay bash" scrawled across it.
There was Lawrence Ford, bludgeoned and slashed ear to ear in 1996 in his Marina del Rey home by a man he had met through a personal ad in the Los Angeles Times.
There was Leeanne Keith of Downey, shot in the back and paralyzed by her father-in-law two years ago because she was thinking of leaving her marriage to embark on a lesbian relationship.
"It's out there. You don't have to go to Laramie," said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Carla Arranaga. She heads the hate crime suppression unit that obtained convictions in all three cases, which drew barely a mention in the mainstream press. "The same type of atrocity occurs here."
The county Human Relations Commission, which tracks hate crimes reported by law enforcement and community agencies, recorded 220 anti-gay incidents in 1997.
The Threat of Violence
Those familiar with hate crimes say gay-bashings are frequently more violent than other bias-motivated offenses. "The most violent type I see [involves] gay and lesbian victims, and African American victims" targeted by white supremacists, Arranaga said.
As members of the campus gay and lesbian group, Alvarez and his friends are certainly no strangers to anti-gay attitudes.
The group has gotten hate mail and harassing phone calls. Its fliers have been torn down. A women's athletic team yelled slurs at some lesbians leaving the center office one night. Graffiti in one campus men's room was signed by a "famous and proud gay basher."
Still, the threat of violence was more abstract than real until the graphic details of the Shepard attack were splashed across the national media.
"He's my age," Karla Saldana, a 20-year-old junior, said of Shepard, who belonged to the gay student association at the University of Wyoming. "It never hit home before."
The day Shepard died--several days after he was found slumped unconscious on a split rail fence--Samantha Clemens was taking part in a campus panel on gay issues. As in Alvarez's case, it dawned on her that she too could be a target.
"For the first time, I thought, oh my God, someone in this class could follow me," Clemens, 22, said.
Juliet Henderson, a 26-year-old UCLA graduate student, has felt relatively safe in Los Angeles. She has walked around the Westside holding hands with her girlfriend and drawn no more than a few stares.
"West Hollywood is a little bubble--that's where I live," Henderson said. "It's really easy to live in a little gay world and forget people have other experiences."
Yet even before the Shepard attack, she had a sense of risk. "You never know who is going to be a wacko who could just break out a knife or a gun," she said.
When Mark Masterson, 39, lived in North Carolina in his early 20s, he was beaten by a friend's neighbors. They slashed the tires on his car and then five men jumped him, forcing him down on the pavement.
Masterson escaped with a pulled shoulder and cuts. "It echoes still," said the USC graduate student. "It left me very frightened and very cold. You get very scared."
To this day, he tries to avoid neighborhood situations that could escalate. "I want to be out," Masterson said. "But at the same time what I don't want to do is start something with someone who is homophobic near where I live. Because then things get unpredictable and life isn't worth living."
He was not surprised by the Shepard attack. But he was upset: "I guess I was putting myself in his place."