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Serious Violence Against Gays Said to Rise

In the aftermath of the widely publicized murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming last year, authorities are reporting a rising number of violent crimes against gays.

In the aftermath of the widely publicized murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming last year, authorities have reported the slayings of three more men believed gay by their attackers: a north Alabama man beaten to death with an axe handle and burned; a homeless man who was beheaded in Virginia; and a transvestite beaten to death in Georgia.

As the latest reports came in, an advocacy group, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, released a study showing that the number of murders attributed to anti-gay prejudice had skyrocketed from 14 in 1996 to 33 in 1998. The coalition is made up of 26 community-based organizations that monitor anti-gay violence.

On the same April day that the coalition's report was released, President Clinton urged Congress to pass a bill that would expand the current federal hate crimes law to include sexual orientation, disability and gender.

Numbers reported by the National Coalition have long been at odds with FBI statistics, which give far lower figures. But there is little question that at least some bias killings are not designated as hate crimes, often for merely technical reasons like the absence of local hate crime reporting mechanisms.

Academic studies have shown that gay men and lesbians suffer from extraordinarily high levels of violence based on their sexual orientation.

The three latest killings may be examples of that:

· Billy Jack Gaither, a singer in the local Baptist choir who lived with and cared for his elderly parents, was beaten to death in Sylacauga, Ala., allegedly by two men who then incinerated his body on a pyre of old tires. Gaither had kept his sexual preference private in the deeply conservative town, the birthplace of actor Jim Nabors, as most gays there have.

But on Feb. 19, two acquaintances, Steven Mullins, a 25-year-old known for wearing Klan T-shirts around town, and Charles Butler, 21, allegedly lured Gaither from a country western bar and killed him. Both men have been charged with murder and were being held in lieu of $500,000 bail.

· Ten days after Gaither's murder, a young couple taking a morning stroll through a park in Richmond, Va., discovered the decapitated body of Henry Edward Northington, a homeless gay man. In what police say could have been meant as a "message," Northington's head had been placed at a park footbridge leading to a popular gay meeting place.

No one has been arrested in the murder, and gay rights activists say police may have problems because of distrust in the gay community. In January, after 54 gay men were arrested in a police sting, the authorities sent postcards to the men's homes suggesting they be tested for AIDS — a move that enraged gay rights advocates who saw the mailings as intimidation.

· Unlike Gaither and Northington, Tracey Thompson lived long enough to talk to authorities. Bleeding from severe head wounds, the 33-year-old transvestite managed to walk a half-mile to a farmhouse in Cordele, Ga., and talk to police before losing consciousness and dying on March 31.

Sheriff Stacy Bloodworth said her deputies, who found pieces of a bloodied baseball bat on the road Thompson staggered down, were investigating the murder as a possible hate crime.

The National Coalition also reported that while the total number of assaults on gay men and lesbians declined by 4 percent, the attacks were more violent. It said that the number of victims requiring hospitalization more than doubled, from 53 in 1997 to 110 last year. There was a 71 percent rise in assaults and attempted assaults with guns, and attacks involving bats, clubs and other blunt objects increased by 47 percent.

Some activists laid part of the blame at the feet of conservative preachers. In Sylacauga, Cliff Tinney, a church deacon who ministers to gay men and lesbians, said Gaither's death occurred in an atmosphere of hate fostered by some of the town's 70 churches.

"By saying [LGBT people are] a perverse people, this is an immoral people, don't trust your children with them," Tinney told ABC's "20/20" news show, "I think they are teaching a form of quiet hate."