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There was sadness and anger in the air in Winter Haven's historical Central Park April 14. Nearly 200 people — adults and children, gay and straight — came out for a white-balloon vigil to remember the brutal murder March 15 of 25-year-old Ryan Skipper, a young gay man found stabbed to death in nearby Wahneta. Similar vigils were going on all over the state, attracting more than 1,000 people in 14 cities. In Winter Haven, Skipper's family was in attendance, noticeably shaken.

Two men — William David Brown Jr., 20, and Joseph Bearden, 21 — were charged with first-degree murder in the case. Police say they killed Skipper, then stole his new car and drove it around town to boast to their friends. Cops classified the murder as a hate crime.

Vigil attendees, buoyed by support from Equality Florida, were hoping Skipper's death would signal a new beginning.

"They're not keying our cars anymore," says Equality Florida communications director Brian Winfield. "They're breaking our bones."

It's been almost 10 years since Matthew Shepard was beaten and tied to a fence to die in rural Wyoming. But only now is the topic of hate crimes against gays getting a real hearing. On May 3, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 by a vote of 237 to 180, which would expand the federal definition of a hate crime to include gays and gender-targeted crimes. The bill has yet to reach a Senate vote, but President Bush has already promised to veto it if it gets to his desk.

The House version of the bill allows federal authorities to assist the prosecution of local hate crimes with manpower and money. (Florida already includes gender preference in its hate-crimes legislation, but sentencing guidelines apply only in noncapital offenses.)

According to Equality Florida and the Florida attorney general's Hate Crimes Report, crimes against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people have increased in the state for six of the past seven years. In 2004, the number increased 21 percent. Sixty-two percent of hate crimes against the LGBT community fell under the most violent categories, more than any other considered group.

These are just the statistics on reported hate crimes; actual numbers of those afflicted may be hidden by the stigma the term carries.

"I think that anti-gay violence is probably one of the most underreported violent acts," says Winfield.

Orlando Police Department numbers don't indicate a growing trend. There were five reported hate crimes in 2004, five in 2005, 14 in 2006 and two so far this year. Among all those incidents, only two were classified as being directed at gays. A battery at the Parliament House on Jan. 2, 2006, involved a fistfight, biting and the tossing around of terms like "bitch-ass nigger" and "faggot"; and on Jan. 23, 2005, a man was punched and kicked while walking home from the Peacock Room after a car pulled up and another man jumped out, yelling, "Hey, are you a fag?"

In response to that incident and a spate of vandalism of gay businesses in the ViMi district, Orlando commissioner Patty Sheehan led a "Love Not Hate" march down Mills Avenue in February 2005.

"I thought, ‘Wait a minute. People are getting beat up,'" Sheehan says, adding that the event was well-attended by heterosexuals who didn't approve of violence in their neighborhood. "The march accomplished exactly what we had hoped for: awareness. And for people to see that we're well-prepared."

With the recent crimes legislation, conservatives are well-prepared, too. Prior to the House vote, the Traditional Values Coalition ( peppered their religious-right base with e-mails pleading for money, e-mails that termed hate crimes "thought crimes" and replaced the term homosexual with "homo***ual." Hate crimes legislation, they say, could be used to criminalize their opposition to gay rights.

"It will be used to establish a legal foundation and framework that will eventually be used to investigate, persecute and prosecute YOU, pastors, business owners and anyone whose actions are based upon the truths found in the Bible concerning homo***uality," reads one TVC e-mail. "***ual orientation includes homo***uals, bi***uals and hetero***uals. Gender identity is the code word for cross-dressers, drag queens, she-males, trans***uals, etc. who would be given special protection so that they have more rights than you do."

The conservative Family Research Council complained that the legislation violated the concept of equal protection for all, saying that there were no crimes covered under the hate crimes bill that weren't already covered by existing laws.

"One of the reasons proponents give for federal hate crime legislation is that local authorities are insufficient to carry out the investigation," reads one of their e-mails. "This insufficiency stems from either a lack of resources or the bigotry of local police."

But Winfield questions the right's motives.

"The thing is, this legislation has been in effect for 39 years with other categories, and never once has there been an accusation that a person of faith instigated a hate crime," he says. "And there certainly are many faiths who don't believe in interracial marriage, `or` whatever numerous things are in there. It's a great talking point. It's a great disguise for them to complain about why they oppose it without actually sounding bigoted."

Winfield notes that a person's mindset already plays into charging and sentencing, hate crimes legislation notwithstanding.

"You could have somebody who never murdered anybody, but maybe planned it out or was the mastermind of it," he says. "That doesn't mean they're not guilty of the actual incident."

"I think that most people who aren't playing politics with this issue and don't feel an obligation to a specific base, the vast majority of them support this legislation," he adds.

Bigotry on the part of police also plays a role in these cases, he adds. The Polk County sheriff's department initially reported that Skipper was cruising for sex and had picked up the wrong person, but was swiftly proven wrong.

Tension between police and the gay community is running high in another Tampa case in which Steven Lorenzo, 46, and Scott Schweickert, 39, were convicted of murdering two gay men in late 2003. Many in the gay community felt that cops investigating the case ignored their tips.

Winfield remains cautiously optimistic, noting that if the legislation is vetoed by this president, the next president will provide a another opportunity.

"Two months ago, I would have said — and I think most people would have said — a murder like Matthew Shepard's, as despicable as it was, it just couldn't happen anymore," he says. "That the world has changed that significantly, that our representatives and senators are recognizing it and are even making statements at a national level. But here it is, two people sitting in jail today because they murdered a young gay man because he was gay."

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