OutFest is an opportunity for members of our community to come together, to celebrate each other and to show pride in our LGBTQ identities. Coincidentally enough, this year’s OutFest also marks the anniversary of two gay men having been physically assaulted and subsequently arrested by Philadelphia police officers for disorderly conduct and conspiracy, charges that they were later cleared of. Many of you may remember this incident, as it made headlines in our city; however, police roughing up and accusing a young gay couple of a crime they did not commit did not make national news, nor did it stimulate any major discussion around the need for more inclusive hate-crime legislation in Pennsylvania. Why? For that matter, why have none of the other crimes committed against LGBTQ individuals, especially transgender people, in our city become a cause for change?
On Sept. 11, 2014, a gay couple was brutally attacked and gay-bashed. As our community, and eventually the entire country, learned of this news, people became outraged, baffled and frightened. Many questions have been asked over these last weeks about how such an ugly crime could possibly happen during the height of the gay civil-rights movement and in Philadelphia, the most LGBT-friendly city in the country according to the Human Rights Campaign. Well, the truth is, violent crimes are committed against LGBTQ individuals daily. So what’s different about what happened last month?
First, the attackers were young, white and middle-class, a population few people would consider “likely” to commit this sort of heinous crime; a sad yet true point of reflection of where our country stands with regard to race relations. Furthermore, the attack involved as many as 15 people; this was a group crime and there’s something inherently frightening about so many people willing to engage in, or condone, that kind of violence and hatred towards other human beings. How is it possible that a group of 15 or so friends in their 20s could all be homophobic, violent and full of hate to this extent? Well, chances are they aren’t. The attackers’ success in injuring the victims and belittling their identities to the severe extent that they did hinged largely on the mob mentality in play, which can also be called groupthink.
While I would not imply that Philip Williams, Kathryn Knott, Kevin Harrigan and the others involved that night are proponents of LGBTQ rights and accepting of human differences, what I am comfortable stating is that because of groupthink mentality, coupled with the sheer size of the group that evening, the situation escalated much further than it otherwise would have. As part of a group, people often experience what’s called deindividuation, or a loss of self-identity and awareness. There’s also an idea among each individual that they won’t be held responsible for any wrongdoing because it is the group’s wrongdoing, not their own; this leads to a major decline in inhibitions. As a result of this deindividuation, Williams, Knott and Harrigan, who seem to have acted as the leaders of the group, were able to get their friends on board with violently gay-bashing an innocent couple. Each individual involved who yelled “faggot,” threw a punch or simply did nothing to help the victims likely abandoned some of their own values and beliefs to align with the norms of the group that night.
People most often conform to groupthink and deindividuate because of the sense of excitement that occurs when a group is united in a common task. This can happen in positive ways; for example, OutFest. Many of us will sing and dance alongside one other as various drag queens and kings and other performers take the stage; we will feed off of one another’s energy and experience a natural high as a result. It is, however, very unlikely that any one of us would be singing and dancing to those very same performances if we were by ourselves watching the show. This is a form of completely harmless deindividuation: Our own inhibitions and code of conduct shift to become in alignment with the dynamic crowd we are among.
So this bodes the question: If the attackers consisted of only one, three or five people, would the attack have happened at all? We’ll never know, but chances are that Williams, Knott and Harrigan would have been less likely to strike if their egos weren’t getting a serious feeding as the architects of this disgusting crime.