Reflections on the Passing of Hate Crimes Legislation

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Rainbow-flagYesterday, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This is truly great news for many communities, as this act extended protections for gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.

For folks out there who don’t understand why this is a good thing or how this helps, let me see if I can offer a simple explanation.

Many might ask: “What’s the difference between a violent crime and a violent hate crime?” The actual physical act might be identical, but the key difference is the victim. When a person is beat to death because of their sexual orientation (and such crimes still happen on a regular basis—stories about hate crimes appear on the blogs no less than weekly), that is an attack not just on that individual but on all of us who share that sexual orientation.

When a hate crime takes place, it intimidates all of us. It reminds us not just that we’re not yet equal, but that there are people in this world who are so uneducated, misguided, and filled with messages of hate and condemnation that they would destroy our very existence simply because of who we are. We are all victims of every hate crime.

And while we all hope that none of us ever is a direct victim of a hate crime, I think this legislation resonates with a lot of us. It’s a recognition that in the eyes of the government, we are people too—people whose justice is endangered by every hateful act. It’s the government’s rejection and condemnation of all acts against our respected communities. It hopefully means an end of “gay panic” defenses, where time after time people have gotten reduced charges and sentences for beating us to death simply by claiming they were scared because we were different—where these defendants were rewarded for their crime because we were different.

Does the passing of this law mean that the number of hate crimes will go down? No. That requires education, outreach, and advocacy. That also requires full recognition under the law, so that there is no justification in anyone’s mind to treat us as different or less than. In many ways, this law does little to address the problems we face, but it does much to resist the symptoms. To make sure this law is not wasted, we must move forward on DOMA, DADT, and ENDA and work to address the many other inequalities our community still faces.

And to those out there who think this is about “thought crimes”? Well, maybe you’re a little paranoid, but maybe you have reason to be. The language you spew is not a crime itself, but it sure motivates a lot of crime. I can definitely see how that might weigh on your consciences as this bill is enforced. Society just said that intentional crimes against groups you regularly condemn are in fact, “hateful.” I suspect you’ll have to ponder that one for a while.

And to those of you who say hate crimes legislation doesn’t work? Well, you could be right, but it depends on how you measure it. Does it actually help protect me from hate crimes? No. No, it does not. But what it does do, at least symbolically, is offer a sense of justice for all the hate crimes that have been committed and a new sense of how justice will be enforced for the hate crimes that haven’t been committed yet. If you consider that a hate crime is meant to intimidate an entire community, the hate crimes law is there to stand up for that entire community and say that such acts against identity will not be tolerated. While it may not directly protect me, it offers me a sense of protection: if something should happen to me because I’m a gay man, my country’s got my back.

I haven’t really been able to say that before and know that it was true. I think that sense of security is worth more than we may ever know.

Below is a clip of Obama’s remarks on the passage of this bill. I tried to parse the words critically, but it was nice to be reminded how eloquent a speaker the man can be. It’s a bit condescending to hear him speak about LGBT “equality” when we still don’t have it, but this law’s passing is a momentous occasion and I’ll give him full credit for his words. Pam’s got the full transcript if you’d rather read.

The most inspiring thing I think he said was:

barack_obamaTo all the activists, all the organizers, all the people who helped make this day happen, thank you for your years of advocacy and activism, pushing and protesting that made this victory possible.

Let’s keep it up folks. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

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