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La Crosse Official Says Incomplete Hate Crimes Law Prevent Prosecution Of Attack On Transgender Teen

LGBTQ Advocacy Groups Say Legal Change, Public Awareness Needed To Protect Against Violence Based On Gender Identity

Gay pride flag over Wisconsin capitol building
A rainbow flag observing Pride Month is displayed over the east wing of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Friday, June 7, 2019. The display, endorsed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, drew backlash from conservative Republican lawmakers who said it was divisive, while Democrats hailed it as a sign of inclusivity. Scott Bauer/AP Photo

A La Crosse official says incomplete state laws prevented them from charging a man with a hate crime after he attacked a transgender couple in a public park.

Travis Crawford of La Crosse is facing felony counts of substantial battery with intent to bodily harm and bail jumping after he was arrested in Copeland Park on Tuesday, July 20.

The criminal complaint says Crawford approached a couple in the park and started yelling at them, accusing them of having sex and calling them an anti-gay slur. The complaint says Crawford punched the victim in the face and kicked him while he was on the ground. The report identifies the victim as a juvenile and transgender man. The police officer who responded noted in the report that the victim’s girlfriend was also transgender and that Crawford referred to the couple as “queer” when talking with the officer.

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In a press release last week, Mayor Mitch Reynolds said La Crosse Police requested a review from the district attorney’s office to determine whether the incident could be charged as a hate crime.

But he said the assault didn’t qualify under state law “due to arcane language in those statutes that do not extend hate crime enhancement to crimes committed against transgender or non-binary individuals.”

“It is, of course, appalling that some members of our community are so consumed by hate that they are provoked to violence against children. But we should extend our indignation of this attack to our state lawmakers who choose inaction on outdated state laws over justice,” Reynolds said in the statement.

La Crosse Police referred questions about the case to the La Crosse County District Attorney’s office. That office did not return requests for comment.

Kathy Flores is anti-violence program director for Diverse & Resilient, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group. She said transgender individuals have been the least protected in the state’s LGBTQ community. And she said this issue with hate crime law is not new.

“It is really difficult to get prosecutors to put the hate crime enhancer in general on hate violence because there’s some hesitation around that. Even when there is clear-cut evidence that a hate act is the result of somebody’s perception of what that person is,” Flores said.

Flores said gender identity and gender expression are missing from that list and in the eyes of many prosecutors, that disqualifies attacks on an individual because they are transgender.

But she argues that in the incident in La Crosse, and in many other attacks, there is a case to be made that the perpetrator’s actions has more to do with their perception of the victim’s sexual orientation, not their gender identity.

“Even though the couple was trans, the fact that (Crawford) used sexual orientation language tells us that his identity of them was not as trans but as a gay couple,” Flores said.

She said changing state law and guidance from the state Department of Justice is needed to include protections for gender identity and expression. But Flores said the transgender community also needs “courageous prosecutors” to seek the highest level of protection for individuals under current law.

Alesha Schandelmeier, executive director of The Center: 7 Rivers LGBTQ Connection in La Crosse, said she’s been encouraged to see statements of support from Reynolds and local state lawmakers in the wake of what has been a “horrifying” incident for the LGBTQ community.

Schandelmeier said she hopes the situation will be an opportunity to educate people abut the current lack of protection for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.

“It really boils down to the amount of hate that lingers for people that ‘aren’t like us.’ And I really think that hate stems from ignorance,” Schandelmeier said. “We need to get out there and educate people. They need to know that these sorts of things aren’t covered under hate crimes, that these sorts of things happen every day.”

She said she feels the issue has been largely ignored because of the lack of understanding from the general public about the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity.