The Senate has finally passed its anti-gay hate crime bill and President Obama will certainly sign it, no doubt to much fanfare. In the words of Human Rights Campaign's Joe Solmonese, it'll be "our nation's first major piece of civil rights legislation" for LGBT Americans. And at this seemingly historic moment, the burning question for people who think gay folks should to be treated like full citizens ought to be this: So what?
I wrote my first story about the Senate’s anti-gay hate crime bill more than a decade ago. What struck me most then holds true today: It’s a nothing bill. All these years of lobbying and cajoling (and donating to) the Democrats, and this is the best they can do for gay civil rights? A tough-on-crime law that adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of things it’s really, really illegal to attack somebody over? At best, the bill scores the symbolic victory of the Senate acknowledging gay people as something more than a threat to straight marriages. At worst, it puts another club in the hands of a broken criminal justice system that will use it, as always, to beat up on young black men.
Hate crimes are not a criminal justice problem. Cops and courts have their place, but they aren’t a panacea. We like to think if we just “get tough” on social problems we don’t want to meaningfully address, it’ll go away. But that hasn’t worked for drugs, it hasn’t worked for teen pregnancy or STDs, and it’s not gonna work for hate, of gay people or anybody else. Fixing those things takes a lot more work—work we don’t want to do.
The Senate’s bill (passed, fittingly, as an attachment to the conference report outlining the Pentagon’s budget) broadens the definition of the existing federal hate crime law to include disability, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity. (Race, color, religion and national origin are already in there.) It also makes it a federal crime to attack military personnel because of their job.
Supporters named the measure after Matthew Shepard, the young Wyoming man who’s brutal murder caught the nation off guard back in 1998. As me and other Root writers have noted, an uncounted number of black young people have since been tortured, killed and driven to suicide for being queer; not to mention the grisly violence transgender people in urban communities face routinely. Those crimes don’t make national headlines—even within the gay community—and the victims thus don’t qualify as hate-crime poster children. Which is the first sign that there’s not much honest about the discussion.
If the Senate and gay rights advocates alike want to actually deal with hate, then let’s do so. Let’s support real conversations in schools about sexuality and fund gay-straight alliance clubs, so they exist not just in tony neighborhoods but in the poor communities where hate crimes happen. Spare us the lobbying budget for a hate crime bill and instead fund gay community centers and outreach programs in those same poor neighborhoods. In sum, let’s actually engage the hate in question, not just make more crimes for prosecutors to tally.