The Other News from Last Week — Hate Crimes Bill

28 10 2009

In the excitement of last week’s announcement from the Vatican last week, quite  a few folks (me included) failed to mention something really important.

The United States Senate passed legislation making it a crime to assault someone because of their sexual orientation.

This bill, which earlier passed the House of Representatives, is on its way to the President’s desk for signature, which makes it federal law.  Unless I am mistaken, this is the first time that there is any federal law of any sweeping protection over those who are LGBT. Whether you are on the streets on New York, the suburban jungles of Connecticut, the back woods of the deep south, or in the wilds of Montana, it will be a crime to assualt anyone on the basis on their orientation just as it is because of their gender or race.

This is the camel’s nose under the tent. To quote the Arabian proverb in full, “If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.” It is a step to full civil equality in the eyes of the federal government.  The question is no longer “Will this happen?” but rather “When will this happen?”  and more importantly, “what can we do to hasten the day?”

Many, if not most, of us probably already live in areas where there are some similar protections or even greater benefits, so it is easy to see why this would have registered as a blip on the radar where we said “oh good!” or “it’s about time!” and moved on.

What did annoy me, though, and moved me to post about this was that I heard or read of some people saying “so what?” or “why do we need hate crimes legislation anyway?”  This is not coming from the usual sources.  I even remember reading a post on Andrew Sullivan‘s blog about it … written by Andrew … you know, that conservative HIV-positive, legally married gay man.

This bill is absolutely necessary, and Americans should all rejoice at its passage.  The Episcopal Bishop of Wyoming is even attending the signing ceremony, in no small part because the bill is named for Matthew Shepard, who was beaten and left to die in October 1998.  Matthew, I understand, was a faithful Episcopalian and active in his parish.  Lest we think this bill is just about LGBT folks, I would like to remind you that James Byrd, Jr., an African American, was dragged to death that same year in Texas.

If there are any further doubts why this is necessary, consider this …

As long as racism, sexism, homophobia and heterosexism are still very much alive and well in this world, there will be a need for hate crimes legislation.



3 responses

28 10 2009
Personal Atheist

While I applaud this law and view it as a good first step, I really don’t think it’s a huge deal. It does not mean quite what your interpretation would suggest. LGBT folks are already “protected” from assault (just like everyone else). The protection merely means that the assailants will be prosecuted when caught.

Hate crime laws simply add a minimum sentence when someone is targeted due to belonging to a particular group. This is because the assailant wanted to hurt the whole group by his actions, not just the individual. The biggest addition to the federal hate crime law was not the inclusion of LGBT protection, but the fact that any hate crime can be a federal offense now, not just when the victim is engaged in federally protected acts (such as voting). This might mean that when hate crimes are committed in one of the less progressive states the federal government can step in and do a better job than local prosecutors. That would depend, of course, on the administration’s willingness to do it.

29 10 2009

Specifially including LGBT folks is hugely important, at a minimum at least symbolically. The same reasoning that holds that there was no need for specific inclusion because LGBT folks were already protected is the same reasoning that defeated the Equal Rights Amendment, that there was no need of it because women already have equal rights. Symbolism can have enormous cultural and political implications.

4 11 2009

This is indeed good news.

(We’ve had one for a while but I’ll say that quietly)

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