In a year when LGBT advocates stand to make the most significant strides for equality since the birth of the modern gay rights movement, an apparent hate crime just blocks away from where the struggle began serves as a stark reminder that the battle is not over.
Mark Carson, a 32-year-old gay man, was shot and killed early Saturday morning in Greenwich Village near the legendary Stonewall Inn, a popular establishment among the gay community where patrons famously clashed with police during a 1969 riot.
According to Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, the gunman confronted Carson on the street and stalked him, while shouting anti-gay slurs. The gunman then pulled out a revolver and shot Carson point blank in the cheek. Carson was taken to Beth Israel Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Elliot Morales, 33, was later arrested and charged with second-degree murder as a hate crime, along with menacing, and criminal possession of a weapon, WNBC reported.
In a news conference Saturday, Commissioner Kelly said New York City had seen a spike in bias-related crimes this year--a sharp deviation from an otherwise successful streak for the advancement of LGBT rights. This year alone has seen several states extend marriage rights to gay couples; a number of lawmakers--including two sitting Republican senators--have reversed their opposition to marriage equality; and public figures (including a professional athlete) have come out without provoking a backlash. In the next few weeks, the Supreme Court could issue historic rulings on two same-sex marriage cases.
And yet, in New York City, perhaps the birthplace of the American gay-rights movement, 22 bias-related crimes have been reported, compared with just 13 during the same period last year, said Commissioner Kelly. Carson is the fifth New York City victim of anti-gay violence in just the last three weeks, though he is the first fatality.
LGBT advocates were quick to condemn the murder and highlight its significance for the civil rights battle ahead.
"While our community has made progress, this is a stark and sobering reminder of the rife homophobia that still exists in our culture,” said Wilson Cruz, GLAAD’s national spokesperson, in a statement. “Until we rid our society of the discrimination that allows us to be seen as inferior and less than human, we will never truly be safe, even in one of the most accepting cities in the world.”
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is hoping to become New York's fist openly gay mayor, also drew the connection between Carson's murder and the gay community's ongoing struggle. "There was a time in New York City when two people of the same gender could not walk down the street arm-in-arm without fear of violence and harassment," she said. "We refuse to go back to that time.”
While reported anti-gay hate crimes in New York City are on the rise, the national trend is far more difficult to determine. According to an annual report released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the number of hate crimes across the country based on the victim's sexual orientation increased in 2011--the most recent year for which information is available. Law enforcement agencies reported 1,508 hate crime offenses based on sexual-orientation bias in 2011, up from 1,470 offenses in 2010.
However, a Bureau of Justice Statistics' survey found that there was no change in the annual average number of hate crime victimizations across the period 2007-2011.
Ty Cobb, senior legislative counsel at Human Rights Campaign, acknowledged in an interview with msnbc the difficulty of gauging the actual rate of anti-gay hate crimes. While the BJS report found no spike in hate crime victimizations, he noted, the report also found that nearly two-thirds of hate crimes went unreported to police in recent years. And because police officers are not required to report hate crimes to the FBI, their annual report is also an unreliable measure.
"We don't really know that hate crimes have gone up because we aren't getting clear reporting," said Cobb. "The federal data is fuzzy. It gives us the minimum number of hate crimes...[But] even at a minimun, the fact that there were still that many shows that we have a national problem."
Richard Socarides, LGBT advocate and writer for the New Yorker, also spoke to the difficulty of identifying anti-gay hate crime trends on Monday, telling msnbc host Thomas Roberts that New York's rise may not be an uptick in hate crimes at all, but rather a case of "more reporting." Regardless of the trend, however, Carson's murder is still a reminder that the gay community needs to remain vigilant.
"Even though things are better, and even though there has been a lot of progress to make the country more equal, there is still a lot of prejudice, and bigotry, and actual violence that exists against LGBT Americans," said Socarides. "We can't become too complacent."