Stares. Glares. Slurs muttered under people's breaths.
These are the things local gay people say they have come to expect when they go out in public, whether they are holding hands at the movies or walking down the street.
Like the time Cindy Lucas and Ellen Caldwell attended a Carolina Panthers game in Charlotte last season.
Caldwell said she and Lucas were walking down the street after the game, holding hands. A man looked at them "with disgust," she said, and told them, "God knows what you do!"
"I turned and gave (Lucas) a big kiss," Caldwell said, grinning. "Then he said, 'God sees you women!' And I said, 'Good, I hope He did, because He made me who I am.'"
On April 9, eight men beat 19-year-old Joshua Esskew outside a convenience store on Cherry Road just outside Rock Hill. Esskew was walking inside for a drink when a man allegedly yelled a gay slur at him and threw a beer bottle at his head.
Esskew fought back, and the result was a brutal beating caught on surveillance video.
Esskew believes he was beaten because he is gay.
When asked about how the men could have known he was gay, Esskew said it is because he "walks gay."
If Esskew was beaten because of his sexual orientation, it would be considered a federal hate crime. South Carolina does not have a hate crime law.
Neither the Rock Hill Police Department nor the York County Sheriff's Office reported any sexual orientation-based hate crime incidents in 2009, the last year federal statistics are available.
Officials from both departments said they have not investigated any incident as a hate crime in several years.
The Sheriff's Office is investigating the Esskew case. So is the FBI.
Suspects who are later identified will be charged with second-degree assault and battery, a charge that carries up to 25 years in prison, according to authorities.
Caldwell and Lucas are members of Wednesday Night Out, a happy hour for gay professionals in the Rock Hill and Charlotte area. At a meeting last week at Amici's Italian Oven in Rock Hill, Lucas, Caldwell and at least 20 others ate, talked, laughed and enjoyed the companionship.
Some straight friends attend Wednesday Night Out, Lucas said, and area businesses have been supportive.
Reaction to gay couples is "much better than it used to be," Lucas said. "Since the '80s there's a night-and-day difference."
Still, they notice how people's expectations or opinions sometimes change quickly when they find out they are gay.
Winthrop University student and GLoBAL, a group for gays and lesbians, member Aaron Stewart, 24, talked about walking hand-in-hand with a boyfriend at last year's Renaissance Festival and the "funny looks" he received.
"But I haven't had any real violence or assault out on campus or at work," he said.
A.J. Sims, 19, another GLoBAL member and sophomore at Winthrop is from Ohio. He said people seem to be more tolerant there.
He remembered holding hands with a boyfriend at Manchester Cinemas in Rock Hill.
"People were muttering under their breath, but they didn't act on it," he said. "It's fine to speak up, but what I hope is that when someone says a slur and no one affirms them, that will isolate them."
Eventually, he hopes, this will lead to people not using slurs as much.
Bill McGinnis, 47, is an art history lecturer at Winthrop. He has lived in several different states, including Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina and has seen how different reactions can be.
Florida was a very comfortable environment, he said, whereas in this part of the South he's surprised to see such discussion.
"In other areas, it's live and let live," he said.
He could recall only one instance at a store where a teenage girl walked by and called him a name.
"I rolled my eyes," he said. "I was stunned, humorously, that someone thought that would affect me."
Hate crime statistics
According to the FBI, law enforcement agencies across the nation reported 6,604 hate crime incidents in 2009. Of that number, 1,436 were deemed to be hate crimes based on the victim's sexual orientation, with more than half of those motivated by an anti-male homosexual bias.
South Carolina law enforcement agencies reported 18 hate crimes in 2009 based on sexual orientation.
Though South Carolina law does not have a designation for hate crimes, local law enforcement agencies are required to report any incidents they would investigate as a hate crime to the FBI and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
These incidents could be listed as lynching or assault by a mob; with mob defined as a group of more than two people. Local agencies look for key terms used in the incidents, such as gay or racial slurs, to investigate something as a hate crime.
The U.S. Attorney's office in Columbia, which prosecutes federal hate crimes, said Monday it could not confirm or deny any involvement in the Esskew case, but that hate crimes are a top priority.
Would having a state designation for hate crime help prevent situations such as Esskew's?
State Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, said last week he is planning to re-introduce a hate crime bill this week in the General Assembly.
At least 24 states have hate crime laws focusing on sexual orientation, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
California has compiled hate crime statistics that were prosecuted on the state level. A report from California's Criminal Justice Center showed 1,000 hate crimes reported in 2009, a slight decrease from the previous year.
Sexual orientation-based hate crimes have consistently become the second most-common hate crime, in California the report states, making up 22.3 percent of the 2009 statistic.
California law enforcement agencies filed 283 hate crime cases in total, and 131 resulted in a conviction.
According to New York's 2009 crime statistics, there were 359 hate crime offenses , with 27 percent having a sexual orientation basis. Arrests were made in 138 incidents. There were 87 convictions.
"We have an obligation to make our communities safe for all people," King said. "Hate against anyone is wrong, and the acting out of that hate in a crime needs punishment that is severe."
It remains to be seen if King's bill will gain traction in the Legislature, but Ellen Caldwell has a message for Esskew and anyone else who is gay:
"It gets better. It really does."
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