Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hate Crimes Bill Signed Into Law

I hear in the news today that Pres. Obama has signed into law the new bill adding sexual orientation to the existing hate crimes bill. Here's some of CNN had to say:

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama on Wednesday signed a law that makes it a federal crime to assault an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.

The expanded federal hate crimes law, hailed by supporters as the first major federal gay rights legislation, was added to a $680 billion defense authorization bill that Obama signed at a packed White House ceremony.
The hate crimes measure was named for Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming teenager who died after being kidnapped and severely beaten in October 1998, and James Byrd Jr., an African-American man dragged to death in Texas the same year.

Shepard's mother, Judy, was among those at the ceremony that also included Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Attorney General Eric Holder and leading members of Congress and the Pentagon, who were on hand for the appropriations bill signing.

—from a CNN news release, 28 October 2009

I hear general clamoring of celebration from most corners of the gay community, or rather, communities. I hear celebration, and I hear cheering, and I hear relief, and also the feeling that now, something will be done, if anything like Matthew Shepard's murder happens again.

And I live out here in the rural small town conservative Upper Midwest, and although my own friends here who know I'm gay have been likewise congratulating me on this news, I know that we're surrounded by many who would still have no problem putting Matthew's corpse up on that storm fence themselves. I wonder what all this will change.

I hear one voice on a gay blog website saying words like: If i am ever beaten or killed it's good to know something might be done.

And I am staggered. If I am ever beaten or killed, it's good to know that something might, perhaps, maybe, hopefully, be done. . . . As though that were never a possibility before. This is how we live our lives: knowing that we can still be murdered, for no reason other than that we're gay, or lesbian, or intersex, or purple. And we all still know that no law can stop people from hating; it can only make the consequences for their actions more severe. Perhaps they'll think twice. But since hatred and fear are emotional and irrational, a potential gay-basher stopping to think before acting seems unlikely. Like the death sentence, it will prove to be no real deterrent, although it might lead to justice.

And I find myself responding to this dilemma, as follows:

Having been bashed, verbally and physically, at different times in different places, for being gay—which is doubly ironic since I'm more butch than femme to all appearances—for being smart, for being opinionated, I suppose that I'm glad to see the legislation added to the register.

Yet I am led to a deeper question:

Is this anything but a symbolic political victory? Will it actually change anything? How long will it be before those who uphold the law actually do uphold the law, and take for granted that gay-bashing is wrong, rather than needing to be pushed into enforcing the laws already on the books? (This new law just makes Federal what many States had already done.)

Will this really put an end to anything? Will it really save future Matthew Shepards? Or will it just make those killers easier to prosecute? Does it save lives, or does it allow us to take better revenge?

If I am beaten or murdered for being gay, will this law mean much to my ghost?

As someone who has been bashed, mugged, and assaulted a few times in my life, over the years—and as someone who was regularly bullied and beaten during my school years—I can't as if I have much faith in the power of this new law. I can't say as if I feel much safer, tonight, knowing that such a law now exists. My feelings of safety come from within, from refusing to be a victim, from my learned ability to take care of myself. I won't depend on the law if I find myself in a situation in which I am at risk; I will defend myself. I won't depend on law enforcement. Being bullied in my youth taught the very important lesson that you cannot always rely on those in authority to come to your aid; in fact, you'd better not.

And then there's the issue of revenge. Is bashing back, if that's what it comes to, satisfactory? Does it make us feel better? Does it make the world a finer place? I can't get Gandhi's words out of my mind tonight: An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

I'm not just being contrary here. I think these are genuine questions, which haven't been addressed yet.

Real change, the real prevention of more murders and bashings, will only come when people no longer care whether you're gay or not. When being gay, itself, is not an issue, and neither hated nor feared.

Hate crimes legislation may be a good start. It may in fact be the only place available to start from.

But it's not enough.

This law is only the beginning. There remains a great deal more work to be done.


  1. Art, I first encountered your comments on Working with Words, John's blog.

    This is powerful stuff. I look forward to the day when it won't matter who we love, but rather only that we love.

    This really spoke to me: I can't say as if I feel much safer, tonight, knowing that such a law now exists. My feelings of safety come from within, from refusing to be a victim, from my learned ability to take care of myself.

    Stay strong.

  2. Hi, Kim, nice to see you here! And thanks very much for the comments, and the response.

    I very much agree. Like you, I look forward to that day when none of this matters anymore, except that we DO love each other.