Hate Crimes Legislation: Why It Matters

October 30, 2009 at 11:25 am | Posted in American Politics, Legislation | 1 Comment
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Recently, the Hate Crimes bill was passed.

It was stuck inside a much bigger defense bill.

But, nonetheless, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed Congress on October 22, 2009, and President Barack Obama signed the bill into law on October 28, 2009.

What does it say, exactly? Why does it matter? What can it actually do? And does it affect the non-LGT queer community?

The text of the bill itself can be found on the Library of Congress website.

Oh, and by the way I found yet another Washington Post journalist who is a complete douchebag when it comes to community inclusiveness: he doesn’t even include lesbians, this time. It’s all about “the gays.” May as well make it “teh gayz” and show your real intelligence level, bud. Because, after all, this piece of legislation is actually all-inclusive of everyone in the queer community on some level. This “Perry Bacon, Jr.” character is so obviously on the anti-LGBT side it’s ridiculous, so even with the benefit of the doubt that maybe he’s the usually-somewhat-liberal WPost’s attempt at being balanced, there’s no need to be THAT ignorant. Even if you think we’re immoral, we’re still human. The text of the bill (maybe you need to read it yourself, Mr. Not-Kosher-Food, Jr.?) was worded very specifically so as to include the entire spectrum of identities — sexual, gender, and otherwise.

First thing in the bill, Congress states what its “findings” are in regard to hate crimes.

And I quote:

    Congress makes the following findings:

     

  • (1) The incidence of violence motivated by the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim poses a serious national problem. (Source)

I will reiterate from my last post: this post includes the words “actual or perceived” and “gender, sexual orientation, gender identity” are the keys here as it relates to “teh gayz,” as you would say, Perry. (We’re on a first name basis now, so I hope that’s okay. You can call me Rae.)

With “gender, sexual orientation, gender identity,” this can relate to pretty much everyone on the planet: male, female, transgender, transexual, intersex, gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, pansexual, ambisexual, omnisexual, gender-queer, asexual, agendered, poly-gendered, androgynous, and what-have-you. (For your information, I have actually met at least one person who identifies as each of the above list–I really wasn’t making a single one up. Except for the “male” one. I don’t believe in males.)                          (*giggle*)

Second point: it doesn’t even matter if someone identifies as one of these or any other protected category. Because the legislature found that crime can often be perpetrated on the basis of “perceived” identity status. Meaning: you might not be gay, Perry, but if some thug thinks you are and slugs you for it, Ta Da! That’s a hate crime, and your attacker would receive a stricter punishment for it. So really, this bill protects you, too.

So if you’re wondering why this bill matters, I’ll tell you.

Everyone is at risk of a hate crime.

I’ll say it again:

Everyone is at risk of a hate crime.

You don’t have to be queer of any sort to be a potential target. You just have to have someone think you are. (Or even if you encounter the queer mafia and get beaten up for being too straight. That, by the way, would be a hate crime, too, since heterosexuals are included the term “sexual orientation” as well.)

At any rate, back to the serious issue at hand: Perry, Mr. Douchebag Reporter Sir, you could at least try to hint at the broad scope which this legislation has. You don’t need to include every term out there. I didn’t even include every identity out there, just ones I’ve encountered, and I’m sure there are dozens more in this wonderfully diverse country. But even if you use the perfunctory term “LGBT,” you’ll get the majority of queer people covered. Maybe you can get your editor off your back long enough to slip a “Q” at the end of it or even (*gasp!*) the full word “queer.” Just, you know, recognize that the community that this legislation affects isn’t just “gay.” Because it affects me, and I’m bisexual. It affects my friend who lives down the street who is gender-queer. It affects my other friend’s ex who is transgender. It affects my former classmate who is asexual. It affects my little sister who is a proud straight ally (shout out: love you, L.!) and has received harassment for her support of LGBTQ rights. It can have an impact on anybody.

Broaden your horizons. I dare you.

Now, the question many seem to ask about this type of legislation: What the hell can it actually do?

It’s called the “Hate Crimes Prevention Act.” Does it really act to prevent?

Meh, not really, I say.

What it does is make punishments harsher. Let’s read the actual text where it talks about punishments:

OFFENSES INVOLVING ACTUAL OR PERCEIVED RELIGION, NATIONAL ORIGIN, GENDER, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, GENDER IDENTITY, OR DISABILITY-

  • (A) IN GENERAL- Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, in any circumstance described in subparagraph (B) or paragraph (3), willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person–
    • (i) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both; and
    • (ii) shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined in accordance with this title, or both, if–
      • (I) death results from the offense; or
      • (II) the offense includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.

So, while that may be a bunch of gobbledy-gook to some level, it basically says that people who cause harm to someone because of the victim’s membership or perceived membership in the listed protected classes get quite a harsh punishment. While your basic random beating might get a thug a year or three, a hate crime beating will get that person ten years in the lock-up. And while your basic random shooting or kidnapping might get you 25 to life (depending on the state), if it’s a hate crime, it’ll land you a life sentence for certain, and a fee besides.

Does that prevent hate crimes?

Uhm, I dunno. If you think about a bigot’s thought process before possibly committing one, I can’t imagine part of it being, “Well, hm, let me think about this: is this illegal? Probably… how much jail time will I get? Ten if they can prove a hate crime, two if they can’t… better not do it!”

(That’s another thing: proving that something is a hate crime. It’s basically a thought thing. Some situations are obviously hate crimes: Matthew Shepard. A drag queen being beaten in an alley. A kid who constantly gets teased at school for being a “homo” who is then found dead in a river with “fag” carved into his skin. Those scream “hate crime.” But some can be more shades of gray, especially without witnesses.)

At any rate, I don’t think this will make a concerted effort to prevent hate crimes anytime soon, although education is getting better on these issues and if all goes well, hate crimes will dissipate for other reasons.

What this does do is give closure to the victims and the entire community to which the victim belongs or was perceived to belong.

If my friend gets attacked for being lesbian or androgynous, and her attacker walks away, I will feel significantly less safe and my friend will be traumatized and live in fear for quite some time. PTSD after an attack may occur after any crime. A hate crime, though, affects not only the victim, but everyone who can ever relate to the victim. After all, the attacker doesn’t care about hating my friend in particular. He cares about hating the entire LGBTQ community. And it could have been any one of us walking by at that point in time when he struck out. And it will be any one of us walking by the next time an attack could occur. If all goes to plan, though, he’ll be in jail for ten years. If he assaults her sexually, for life. I feel a bit safer that way, as does much of the rest of the queer community.

This legislation protects every one of us in this country from repeat attacks from released hate crime committers. Maybe it doesn’t prevent the first hate crime from occurring–a widespread education effort is needed for that — but it’s a step in the right direction. It does have a statute of limitations imposed for offenses not resulting in death– 7 years, which is still longer that the statute of limitations on rape, by the way — but there’s no such statute for offenses resulting in death. So now we have the tools to prosecute those who commit hate crimes.

Kudos to Obama and our Congress.

We still need more education, though, if we’re going to truly prevent hate crimes from happening the first time–not just prevent repeat offenders.

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