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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Do Hate Crime Laws Really Effect Anti-LGBT Violence?

By Joseph Erbentraut -
One of the men recently assaulted outside a gay bar in Austin, Texas
One of the men recently assaulted outside 
a gay bar in Austin, Texas

The recent passage of legislation repealing the military’s infamous "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" policy, which since 1993 told gay and lesbian servicemembers the could serve only if no one knew or they didn’t reveal their sexual orientation, is already being lauded by many as the definitive LGBT achievement of President Barack Obama’s first two years in office.

As we approach the halfway point of Obama’s four-year presidential term and a major shift of power in Congress, we are presented with an opportunity to step back and take another look at the other piece of pro-LGBT federal legislation signed into law over these past two years.

Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act on Oct. 22, 2009, and was signed into law shortly thereafter by President Obama. The bill took a powerful step to revise existing federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.

For the first time, it allowed federal authorities to investigate claims local law enforcement agencies chose not to pursue. It also offered funding to help state and local agencies to investigate claims. Finally, the bill is significant in extending the first federal protections of transgender people.

But not all LGBT activists have applauded the legislation as little more than symbolic, politically-motivated gesture to the community.

Fourteen months since the legislation was signed into the law, many remain skeptical the law has helped to dissuade hate violence against LGBT people, particularly given the federal government’s mixed message on LGBT equality as legislation like the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) still stand and federal employment protections for the community (as outlined in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act) have been shelved for the foreseeable future for all intents and purposes.

It’s the eve of the new era of the LGBT political movement. And the Southern Poverty Law Center recently published a report that claims gay and lesbian people have, based on FBI data, been the minority group most often targeted by hate violence.

So maybe it’s time to investigate the efficacy of the hate-crime designation. EDGE spoke with a number of leading voices on anti-LGBT hate violence and bias crimes. The goal: To assess the early impact of queer-inclusive federal hate crimes laws and what obstacles and opportunities lie ahead for activists working to end violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people across the country.

Hate crimes victory was hard fought
Last year’s successful passage of the Shepard and Byrd Jr. Act came as the result of decades of groundwork, dating at least back to President George H.W. Bush’s signing of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act. The act required the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track the incidence of hate crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation and specifically indicating federal funds were not to be used to "promote or encourage homosexuality."

The brutal murder, in 1998, of 21-year-old student Shepard provided a vivid example not only of the violence facing many queer people then, but also of the limited legal protections available to LGBT Americans. This was particularly the case for people, like Shepard, living in states like Wyoming that did not recognize LGBT people as a protected class. The Shepard tragedy granted an increased profile for hate crimes legislation and, in 2001, it was first introduced in the House of Representatives. The law was eventually introduced four times prior to its success last year.

Michael Lieberman, Washington Counsel of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that was one of many groups active in lobbying for the legislation, described the passage as presenting "a dramatic opportunity to change the frame with which we deal with these types of violent crimes" and is confident the law will help deter such crimes against LGBT people and the other newly protected classes.

Lieberman said, while acknowledging there is a learning curve to be considered, the law’s implementation has been going at an acceptable pace. He is aware of many training sessions being held for federal prosecutors and investigators, as well as state and local police, to learn how to identify and accurately investigate sexual orientation- and gender identity-based bias crimes.

"It’s critically important to have these laws," Lieberman said. "We should be able to call a crime what it is and there’s something very powerful and empowering [about that]."

Thus far only one crime -- a mentally disabled 22-year-old Navajo man who was branded with a Swastika by three men in Farmington, N.M., last November -- has resulted in charges under the new law. Lieberman maintained that that point is moot. It was never expected, he said, that the law would pertain to many cases.

The vast majority of hate crime claims are investigated without such charges being pursued at both the federal and state level. Such claims are often difficult to prove and, as 45 states and the District of Columbia already have their own hate crimes laws, federal intervention is often not necessary.

"But we really felt like it was critically important for the federal government to have backstop authority on cases state and local governments can’t or won’t do," Lieberman added.

Dodging inequality’s core?
Nearly all activists certainly acknowledge that hate crimes recognition carries some usefulness in addressing extreme forms of violence such as Shepard’s 1998 murder. Nevertheless, , some question the message the legislation sends in the midst of a political environment that has not allowed for federal LGBT employment protections -- and that continues to draw a legal distinction between opposite-sex and same-sex relationships via a law like the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network, doesn’t mince words in describing the legislation. "Problematic" he calls it; also, a "cowardly, political dodge from the core of the issue" on the part of the lawmakers and organizational heads that fought for it.

"It’s a real problem that, if you have a federal government that explicitly discriminates against LGBT people, it sends the message to those who would discriminate with a baseball bat that it’s probably OK to do so," Thayer told EDGE. "The Democrats are almost complicit in [that sort of violence] ... and many in the LGBT community have fallen for it."

Further, Thayer holds the view that hate crimes legislation grants further leverage to the federal government’s troublingly high level of incarceration which, he said, tends to revictimize minority groups, particularly African-Americans and LGBT people. Considering the history of the black civil rights movement, Thayer added it wasn’t until Jim Crow laws were, by and large, overruled by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that lynching and harassment toward that community began to decrease.

"This whole notion that hate crimes legislation is the way to go in fighting against things like Matthew Shepard’s lynching is wrong," Thayer added.

Healing homophobia within law enforcement?

Thayer is far from the only LGBT activists finding great harm in LGBT-inclusive hate crimes legislation.

The Against Equality Collective, also based in Chicago, has critiqued such legislation as increasing the power and strength of the power system --- a system they argue already commits rampant violence against marginalized queer communities. Other organizations, including the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and Queers for Economic Justice, have also come out in opposition to the legislation for similar reasons.

Morgan Bassichis is the development manager for San Francisco-based Community United Against Violence., an LGBT activist group. He told EDGE the legislation has "expanded the idea that prosecution can bring about about healing for hate violence survivors or an end to homophobia or transphobia despite painfully clear evidence to the contrary."

While acknowledging the law’s symbolic significance, Bassichis pointed to continued reports of police profiling, assault and false arrest from largely low-income LGBT people or LGBT people of color that contribute to a perception of law enforcement as a threat, rather than a resource. The most recent hate violence report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs confirmed reports of police entrapment, unjustified arrest and police raids represented a higher proportion of all hate violence incidents in 2009 when compared to the previous year.

"For these reasons, there is a growing number of people who believe that any funding increase or sentence enhancement in any part of the criminal legal system will only result in more poor people, people of color, and LGBT people behind bars," Bassichis added.

Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York Anti-Violence Project, recognized the deeply-seeded tensions between law enforcement and many LGBT communities will take some time and much work to mend.

"No law is a panacea to what has been at times not just a difficult, but a sometimes very violent relationship between law enforcement and LGBT communities," Stapel told EDGE. "This is one possible way to start to have that conversation and remedy some of that."
Stapel added the legislation’s passage, in marking the first time LGBT people are specifically protected at the federal level sends a very important message in directing the public debate toward tolerance and respect of the community.
"What this law does is send a message that the government is ready to start setting a legal standard of respect and tolerance that will protect LGBT people," Stapel said. "And that’s a huge statement that will go a long way toward breaking down attitudes of intolerance toward LGBTQ people."

Resilience and responsibility
Though both sides of this contentious debate do not agree to much of the content of the hate crimes legislation, activists agree that a long road lies ahead in overcoming the arguably inconsistent federal message on queer equality and the bruises of past instances of community harassment at the hands of law enforcement.

When compared to the relatively consistent rates of hate or bias crimes committed against individuals on the basis of their race or religion in recent years, the rate of LGBT-motivated crimes are not likely to drop off any time in the immediate future.

In a case that received a great deal of attention, two men were recently attacked by five men who hopped out of a passing car when they were seen hugging each other outside of a gay bar in Austin, Texas. The police on the scene, according to witnesses, "didn’t seem too concerned" with the incident. Many have noted that Austin has the reputation of being the most progressive city in Texas and one of the most progressive in the entire nation. Without continued education around the many issues complicit in hate violence, legislation is worth little more than the paper on which it is written.

Both sides on the matter agree the community holds a responsibility to play some role in speaking out against violence directed at the community, whether it be through reporting hate crimes to law enforcement or by supporting each other’s resilience in the face of the tragedies that continue to be directed toward LGBT people far too often.

"Every single hate crime should be reported," Lieberman added. "Sometimes it’s very difficult to come forward but this demonstrates that this issue really matters to us and that we expect [law enforcement] to do the right thing when it comes to these crimes."

"To end anti-LGBT violence and create safety, we need to support individuals impacted by violence in their healing ... and ensure that every person has their basic survival needs met," Bassichis said. "Each time we strengthen our relationships, neighborhoods, and communities out of a shared belief that no one is disposable, we take one step towards creating real safety."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. Log on to to read more.

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