A wider shield against hate crime

By Michelle Chen Apr 08, 2009

The civil rights struggle for the LGBT community has revolved in large part around marriage equality in recent months. While the recent victories in Iowa and Vermont could signal a shifting of political tides toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, another campaign is underway to preserve an arguably more basic right: protection against violence driven by bigotry. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT civil rights group, has partnered with various organizations, including the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund, the NAACP, and the AFL-CIO, to push for the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, or the Matthew Shepard Act. The legislation (which failed to pass in the last session of Congress), would add sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability to the set of protected categories under existing federal hate crimes law. Though the act would not prevent states from taking action on hate crimes, it would open more avenues for the Department of Justice to intervene. In its overview of the legislation, the Coalition argues, “passage of a federal law would result in increased public education and awareness, increased reporting of bias motivated violence, increased reporting under the Hate Crimes Statistics Act and a clearer demonstration of the federal government’s resolve to deal with violence based on prejudice.” Enhancing federal jurisdiction over hate crimes would in part respond to growing frustration with the current system for prosecuting hate crimes. While most prosecutions of violent crimes are handled at the state level, many state hate-crime laws do not include violations based on sexual orientation. According to one estimate, two thirds of bias crimes against gays and lesbians go unreported. Moreover, the institutional reporting of hate crimes to the FBI by law enforcement agencies is notoriously spotty. The killing of Marcelo Lucero on Long Island last November led to federal scrutiny over whether a hate crime epidemic had gone ignored by Suffolk County police in a climate of rising anti-immigrant hostility. The same-sex marriage debate has revealed some common ground between the civil rights barriers surrounding sexual orientation and race. Broad support for stronger hate crimes legislation touches on the more painful side of the struggle: a shared stake in bringing justice to bear against senseless violence. Image: The site of Matthew Shepard’s murder. (Kevin Moloney / Liaison Agency)