Federal inclusive hate crimes bill on its way to Prez Obama’s desk

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act (http://www NULL.nytimes NULL.com/2009/10/23/us/politics/23hate NULL.html) will move from the United States’ legislative branch to its executive west wing today (Thursday October 22, 2009 for the blogo-record). President Obama promised Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy, that he would sign the bill if it made it to the Oval Office desk. This means a great deal in places where local officials don’t or can’t track crimes that target a person’s “perceived or actual gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability” without the aid of Federal resources. That includes most rural counties in the U.S. and my entire adoptive state of Indiana since we don’t recognize hate crimes of any kind.

To date, we’ve had nothing but anecdotal evidence and a patchwork of earnest non-profit organizations to make sense of the socio-spatial dimensions of queer-motivated hate crimes…Who commits these crimes? Where do they happen? Are they more likely to happen in places like Laramie, WY than Los Angeles, CA? What can we do to address them constructively? If/when passed, this new hate crimes law will include $5 million dollars for investigation of these critical questions (and, doing the math, that’s really not enough…so we should think of this as a start).

Perhaps as important as the legislation itself was the conversation it fueled in queer advocacy circles on two key issues: we had to discuss the importance of including (indeed, demanding) gender identity in hate crimes legislation and 2) we had to consider how the violence wrought be hate crimes can feed the violence wrought by an unjust justice/incarceration system.

As any butch grrl in a plaid shirt and buzzcut or sissy boi in skinny jeans and a fohawk can tell you, queer kids get bashed because they aren’t wearing their gender “properly.” in other words, they are targeted more often for disturbing a visual gender norm than because they’re swapping PDA with their LGBT sweeties. Transwomen and transmen (particularly transpeople of color) are bashed because they don’t meet some queerhater’s normative ideals of “the” gender boxes. While sexual orientation is in the mix, we’re usually not wearing it on our sleeves (except when we’re holding a matching-gender lover in our arms). No, we’re likely breaking gendercodes when the fisticuffs start flying. So excluding gender identity from hate crimes legislation is like turning the lights out before you burn down your own house. What’s the point?

Perhaps (perhaps) more challenging in the hate crimes legislation debate was pushing gay and lesbian people to think about how expansion of hate crimes legislation necessarily calls on us to examine the in/justice of the incarceration system (many have called it the “prison industrial complex”–I just don’t want to throw that term around on this blog…so, check out Critical Resistance (http://criticalresistance NULL.org) for more on PIC). At one stage of the legislative debate, Republican Senators planned to attach the death penalty to prosecution of hate crimes (presumably to shake some of the bill’s more liberal anti-death penalty supporters from their support). But there were plenty of gay and lesbian supporters who didn’t flinch. Bring it on their unwavering support for hate crimes legislation seemed to suggest. Kill the bashing bastards.

Whoa. To collectively get behind such a sentiment, we would have to believe (in addition to other things) that our system is flawless in its execution of justice. And it is not. Far from it. In fact, as the New York Times reported (http://www NULL.nytimes NULL.com/2008/04/23/us/23prison NULL.html) back in 2008, we lock up more (arguably young, poor, disabled, racially oppressed, politically marginalized, and gender-transgressive) folks than any other nation in the world.

Fortunately, the Senate amendments that would’ve made hate crimes necessarily carry the weight of the death penalty failed to make it to the final bill. But what if we had been willing to put the death penalty on the table? What about default extended prison sentences? Thanks to some heavy lobbying efforts by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, we don’t have to face ourselves in the morning in such a moral morass.

May this new legislation draw our attention to the complexities and intimacies that produce hate rather than lull us into believing we’ve found the legislative magic bullet to prevent it.

3 Responses to “Federal inclusive hate crimes bill on its way to Prez Obama’s desk”

  • Laramie River Ranch (http://bigwyomingland NULL.com/driving NULL.html) Says:

    Please, can you PM me and tell me few more things about this, I am really fan of your blog! I just subscribed to your feed.

  • Brianne Mcclusky (http://d1era NULL.wordpress NULL.com/2009/11/06/supra-skytop-2-a-closer-look-hypebeast/) Says:

    There are some very good points made here.
    Normally, I am not very keen on politics. but, sometimes all of us have to pause for thought. Food for thought, i am grateful to you.

  • Visiting Defense Atty Says:

    I agree with most of what you say here. However, I do not support creating new crimes to deal with hate crime. This is partially because such efforts are so vulnerable to coattail-riding law-and-order provisions like the Senate death-penalty amendment that almost passed in this case. Further, I’m just not convinced new crimes are necessary or sufficient to create change. I think that what is needed is to motivate law enforcement to enforce the laws that already ban the despicable behavior you mention, and I’m not convinced that simply creating new crimes will do that in cases where local officials have been willing to ignore/underprosecute behavior that is *already clearly illegal.* (For this reason, I’d take issue with your statement that Indiana does not recognize hate crimes of any kind; certainly it does, at least in a formal sense — it has laws against assault/battery, murder, rape, etc., etc. I do not doub that they are unrecognized or underrecognized in practice, but as I mentioned, I’m just not sure the criminal code is the place to address that.)

    I am, however, all in favor of money to study and gather data on patterns of discrimination and crimes based on discrimination. Or any other programs that will help educate/enlighten/financially incentivize local officials to take bashing and other hate crimes seriously and enforce the existing laws. The federal government should be providing a moral example in its own policies and using its spending power and bully pulpit to challenge the climate of hate and intimidation that hangs over LGBQT folks in so many places. I just don’t think we need to create new crimes to do this, and I am concerned about the kinds of collateral consequences that you recognize.

    Thanks for this blog and your work with rural communities. Practicing in Alabama, I know that we dearly need advocates for queer folks in the sticks.

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