Content warning: homophobic violence.
On June 11, 1991, 42-year-old gay, civil rights activist William (Bill) Kiley was tending to the lawn of his San Jose rental property, just across the street from his home, when he became the victim of a hate crime. As Kiley finished watering his tenant’s lawn, he was approached by Joshua Huff, the swastika-sporting 17-year-old who lived next door with his parents. Huff complained to Kiley about grass clippings left on his driveway. Kiley told him he had swept up the grass clippings already, and if Huff would like to discuss the issue any further, he should go get his father. Huff responded with homophobic venom, spitting slurs at Kiley, and taunting him to fight. Kiley refused to respond to the provocation, instead asking Huff to get off his property.
That’s when Huff punched Kiley in the face. Kiley sprayed Huff with his hose to get him away, but Huff only removed his jacket, and yelled, “Come on fucking faggot!” over and over as he slammed his fists into Kiley’s face, and his feet into his chest and stomach. Eventually the neighbors began to gather, including Joshua Huff’s mother, Nancy Huff, who shouted, “What the fuck’s wrong with you, asshole? You fucker. You attacked my minor child.” The police were called to the scene, not by any of the onlooking neighbors, but by the Huffs, who reported that Kiley had attacked their son.
This was, of course, false. Luckily, Bill Kiley could prove it. Kiley had already suffered at length at the hands of his neighbors who repeatedly verbally harassed him with homophobic slurs and damaged his property. Knowing that he needed a way to prove this hate, Kiley set up a handheld camera in his living room window, and set it to record as he managed his rental property. He caught the entire crime on tape.
The tape and following legal proceedings received a frenzy of local and national media attention, spurred on by the timing of the case within the context of California hate crime legislation. With the first hate crime conviction in Santa Clara County taking place only weeks before this crime, the county was in the midst of crucial changes to address the growing problem. As a result, gay rights activists hoped that Kiley’s case would shed much needed light on the issue of hate crimes within the LGBTQ+ community.
Joshua Huff was convicted of three felony charges: felony assault, battery, and committing a hate crime. He was sentenced to 10 months at Santa Clara County Boys Ranch in Morgan Hill along with a requirement to complete substance abuse and reentry programs. This sentence (which was considerably lighter than the 7 years with the California Youth Authority he could have received) was criticized by many LGBTQ+ activists for doing nothing to address rehabilitating Huff for his violence and homophobia, which caused the crime to begin with. Huff’s parents sued Kiley’s lawyer, Paul Wotman, for defamation of character, but lost. Kiley also sued the Huff family for $20 million, a move meant to hold them responsible for their actions, as well as continue to draw attention to the issue of hate crimes.
In 1993, the case was heard by a Court of Appeal in San Jose. This was a landmark case because it proved for the first time that California’s “hate crimes” law does not violate the First Amendment. This statute allows for additional persecution of offenders who engage in these violent acts.
In reflection of these events, Kiley has left some of his thoughts on the criminal case and its lasting impact today:
It surprises me how much I had forgotten about the details and how it affected the state’s legal decisions where hate crimes are involved. In my situation, the District Attorney’s Office questioned trying a minor for assault of a gay man, even with the video. The question was, who was the aggressor and why or what brought about the hostility.
The common belief, at the time, was that if an older man was involved with a minor in an altercation then it was probably the result of a sexual advance (by the gay man). Fortunately, the video put a stop to that line of thought in my case. But, the question was brought to me by both the police and the DA’s people.
Also, while Paul Wotman got the credit for winning my case against the Huffs. The real trial was in the Santa Clara [sic] Superior Court getting a conviction for the hate crime charge. That was brought about by some great work by a group of women in the Prosecutor’s Office. I think they were as concerned about the White Supremacist aspect as the anti-gay epithets/attack. I didn’t get the names of those women but they had a lot of behind the scenes arm twisting with their bosses in order to take my case to trial. It didn’t hurt that Mayor Susan Hammer saw the prosecution as a step forward for the City of San Jose.