Hate Crime Laws and New Identities

by Mary Gray

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act will move from the United States’ legislative branch to its executive west wing today (Thursday October 22, 2009 for the blogo-record). President Obama promised Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy, that he would sign the bill if it made it to the Oval Office desk. This means a great deal in places where local officials don’t or can’t track crimes that target a person’s “perceived or actual gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability” without the aid of Federal resources. That includes most rural counties in the U.S. and my entire adoptive state of Indiana since we don’t recognize hate crimes of any kind.

To date, we’ve had nothing but anecdotal evidence and a patchwork of earnest non-profit organizations to make sense of the socio-spatial dimensions of queer-motivated hate crimes.Who commits these crimes? Where do they happen? Are they more likely to happen in places like Laramie, WY than Los Angeles, CA? What can we do to address them constructively? If/when passed, this new hate crimes law will include $5 million dollars for investigation of these critical questions (and, doing the math, that’s really not enough.so we should think of this as a start).

Perhaps as important as the legislation itself was the conversation it fueled in queer advocacy circles on two key issues: we had to discuss the importance of including (indeed, demanding) gender identity in hate crimes legislation and 2) we had to consider how the violence wrought be hate crimes can feed the violence wrought by an unjust justice/incarceration system.

As any butch grrl in a plaid shirt and buzzcut or sissy boi in skinny jeans and a fohawk can tell you, queer kids get bashed because they aren’t wearing their gender “properly.” In other words, they are targeted more often for disturbing a visual gender norm than because they’re swapping PDA with their LGBT sweeties. Transwomen and transmen (particularly transpeople of color) are bashed because they don’t meet some queerhater’s normative ideals of “the” gender boxes. While sexual orientation is in the mix, we’re usually not wearing it on our sleeves (except when we’re holding a matching-gender lover in our arms). No, we’re likely breaking gendercodes when the fisticuffs start flying. So excluding gender identity from hate crimes legislation is like turning the lights out before you burn down your own house. What’s the point?

Perhaps (perhaps) more challenging in the hate crimes legislation debate was pushing gay and lesbian people to think about how expansion of hate crimes legislation necessarily calls on us to examine the in/justice of the incarceration system (many have called it the “prison industrial complex”-I just don’t want to throw that term around on this blog. so, check out Critical Resistance for more on PIC). At one stage of the legislative debate, Republican Senators planned to attach the death penalty to prosecution of hate crimes (presumably to shake some of the bill’s more liberal anti-death penalty supporters from their support). But there were plenty of gay and lesbian supporters who didn’t flinch. Bring it on their unwavering support for hate crimes legislation seemed to suggest. Kill the bashing bastards.

Whoa. To collectively get behind such a sentiment, we would have to believe (in addition to other things) that our system is flawless in its execution of justice. And it is not. Far from it. In fact, as the New York Times reported back in 2008, we lock up more (arguably young, poor, disabled, racially oppressed, politically marginalized, and gender-transgressive) folks than any other nation in the world.

Fortunately, the Senate amendments that would’ve made hate crimes necessarily carry the weight of the death penalty failed to make it to the final bill. But what if we had been willing to put the death penalty on the table? What about default extended prison sentences? Thanks to some heavy lobbying efforts by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, we don’t have to face ourselves in the morning in such a moral morass.

May this new legislation draw our attention to the complexities and intimacies that produce hate rather than lull us into believing we’ve found the legislative magic bullet to prevent it.

Mary Gray is the author of Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America

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