Paul Day and Christopher Robertson knew life as gay men in Polk County, Florida, could be rough. They had been called names and taunted by neighborhood teens before.
Day, 25, said he even had a mailbox riddled with shotgun pellets once when living near the Green Swamp in the north part of the county.
The couple never thought it would get so bad as Monday, when they returned home from errands to find their house in Kings Manor Mobile Home Park in Lakeland torched and the words “Die Fag” spray-painted on the front steps.
Statewide, though, there is an upward swing in the amount of violence reported toward people because of their sexual orientation. In the latest state report, for instance, hate crimes based on orientation accounted for a higher percentage of all hate crimes than ever before.
Monday’s case is an arson with burglary, Lakeland Fire Department spokeswoman Cheryl Edwards said. But officials remain tight-lipped about the investigation.
The fire had “multiple points of origin,” Edwards said.
Day said someone apparently poured a flammable substance all over the carpet and torched it.
The home, which just had three months of renovations completed, is in ruins, Day said. The damage is estimated at $15,000.
Many belongings, including electronics, were stolen.
Day and Robertson have called Polk County home for most of their lives. As early as high school, Day said he knew he was gay and identified himself openly. Problems with other people, though, have plagued him. He said he called the authorities three times for such incidents as rocks thrown at his home and a shot-riddled mailbox when living in north Polk County.
“Between Tampa and Orlando, it’s just a void,” Day said of the Lakeland area. “It’s a different world. Very behind the times.”
Added Robertson, 23: “For the past six months, I’ve been saying, ‘I want to move; I want to move.’ I don’t want to be here anymore. It’s stressing me out.”
When Day moved to the mobile-home park a couple of years ago, he said it didn’t take long for trouble to begin. He said a group of teens and young adults sometimes taunted him as he checked his mail.
“I tried to not associate with people here,” said Day, who works at an auto-parts store in Auburndale. “We’ve just tried to stay to ourselves.”
Edwards wouldn’t say if fire investigators are considering the arson and burglary a hate crime. But the law defines such a crime as one in which the victim is intentionally picked based on race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, advanced age or mental or physical disabilities.
There is no separate criminal charge for hate crimes — it is an enhancement of a charge, said Chip Thullbery of the State Attorney’s Office in Polk County.
The state attorney general’s latest annual report on hate crimes for 2003 shows a clear increase in reported incidents motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation, Attorney General Charlie Crist has said.
The number of such incidents statewide accounted for 20 percent of all hate crimes in 2003, the highest proportion for this category ever recorded in Florida.
Law enforcement in metro Orlando reported about 50 hate crimes overall in 2003.
Patrick Jones, 40, of Equality Polk County, an organization devoted to human-rights issues, said he thinks things are getting worse in the area for gay and lesbian people, whether actual crimes are reported or not.
He thinks those with anti-gay attitudes are more apt to push boundaries than they used to be, but those who are repelled by such — including gays and lesbians — aren’t prone to get involved to speak out unless they are personally affected.
“They think nothing’s going to happen, ‘so let’s see what we can get away with,’ ” said Jones, who is running for an open Lakeland City Commission seat in November.
Experts in hate crimes agree, saying incidents reported to law enforcement only represent a small piece of the picture.
There was about a 26 percent spike in violence or harassment reports involving gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people during the second half of 2003, according to Clarence Patton of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which collects data from agencies and nonprofits around the country that deal with violence.
Many of those incidents would not be classified as hate crimes. He thinks the landmark Supreme Court decision involving sexual relations between two gay men in June 2003 and the ensuing political season in which gay marriage was a theme played a role in the timing of the increase.
He said his organization also has seen a spat of arson cases such as the burning of gay bars in Brownsville, Texas, on Sunday and another in Fayetteville, Ark., earlier this month.
“It’s a little terrifying, I have to tell you,” he said.