Attack on Morgantown Drag Performer Sparks Calls for Update to West Virginia’s Hate Crime Law
Editor's Note: The alleged victim of this incident filed paperwork on Tuesday, June 11, 2019 to discontinue the police's investigation of the incident.
A reported attack on a black, gay man in Morgantown over Memorial Day weekend has sparked reaction from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, as well as renewed attention on West Virginia’s hate crime laws.
According to a report filed with the Morgantown Police Department, Jared Rote said he was walking home from downtown toward his residence in the South Park neighborhood when he was attacked from behind on the Pleasant Street Bridge at about 3:45 a.m. Monday.
While he was unable to provide a description of those involved, Rote told police he believes he was attacked by three people. He recalled that one of the suspects said “this is what you get” while the attack was in progress.
An officer who responded to Mon General Hospital observed Rote had “minor lacerations” on his chest, face and arms.
Rote performs around Morgantown’s gay bar scene as a drag queen and under the name Ophelia Jewels.
At about 5 a.m. Monday, officers conducted a search of the area where the alleged attack occurred, but were unable to find any evidence of the attack.
According to a news release from the Morgantown Police Department, detectives have been assigned to the case and are conducting an investigation into the incident.
Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, was one of dozens of members of the community to attend a Monday evening rally in support of Rote.
“As a city, we know that we have a strong LGBTQIA+ community. We know we are a tight community. We know we have allies that will be on the forefront and speaking out against this. But there is still a lot of work to do,” Walker said by phone Tuesday.
With no suspects in custody, Walker points out that the attack could have been motivated by any number of reasons.
“We don’t know if this was a crime based on the fact that [the victim] is gay or because he is black. But that doesn’t matter,” she said.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization, 31 states and the District of Columbia address hate or bias crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity -- with 11 of those addressing only sexual orientation.
West Virginia’s hate crime law does not address sexual orientation or gender identity.
In 2017, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that anti-gay attacks aren’t covered by the state’s hate crime law. Former Chief Justice Allen Loughry, who is currently serving a two-year prison sentence on federal fraud convictions, wrote the majority opinion that supported that ruling.
Fairness West Virginia, a statewide civil rights advocacy organization dedicated to fair treatment and civil rights for LGBTQ persons, called the attack on Rote “horrifying” and is an example of why West Virginia’s hate crime law needs updated.
“As our community has become increasingly visible, we have also become increasingly vulnerable. This is reflected in FBI statistics which continue to show that anti-LGBTQ hate crimes are among the most common types of hate crimes,” Fairness West Virginia executive director Andrew Schneider. “There have been three high-profile anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in West Virginia in less than two years. Enough is enough.”
Walker and other Democrats in the House of Delegates tried repeatedly but failed to bring various LGBTQ rights-focused legislation to the floor this past session.
One of those bills, House Bill 2733, would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to West Virginia’s Human Rights Act. Six different efforts by Democrats to spur the measure along failed over the course of the legislative session.
“It goes back to leadership. It should not be about who is in the majority or the minority. It should not be about whether you have an R or a D beside your name. We are all human,” she said, making note of the partisan divide in the House on the issue of LGBTQ rights.
June is LGBTQ Pride Month, designating the month when the Stonewall Riots took place in New York City in 1969 -- a seminal event in which LGBTQ people rioted after a police raid on a gay bar.
Across the United States, events are held in June to celebrate diversity and inclusion of the LGBTQ communities.