This is a repost from the Equality Texas blog. (Don't worry, I wrote it and I'm going to hang around to chat about it).
Federal Hate Crimes Legislation - A Grim Victory
Today, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It is an important, yet grim, victory for the LGBT and other targeted communities. Among other important steps, the Act marks the first time federal law has referred to "gender identity" in a positive manner and offered transgender persons some form of protection.
It has taken 13 years, untold victims, multiple deaths, and the efforts of survivors, loved ones and activists to get the Hate Crimes Act passed. No one, of course, expects the Act to actually end hate crimes. However, the hope is that by granting the federal government the jurisdiction and resources to prosecute hate crimes people will become more aware, and educated, about hate crimes--eventually leading to an overall reduction in this, one of the most hideous forms of violence.
More below the fold....
Hate crimes are never pretty, and it is tough to talk about them. But it is important to remember them so that we have the motivation, and courage, to move forward. For those of you too young to remember it serves to recount the barest details about the men, and the crimes, for which the Act was named. In 1998, Mr. Shepard, only 21 years old at the time, was tortured, beaten, crucified and left to die on a barbed wire fence in Wyoming. He died in a hospital five days later from head injuries. Mr. Shepard was targeted because he was gay. In 1999, Mr. Byrd, a 47 year old father, accepted a ride home from three men (one of whom he knew), but instead of being driven home was beaten and dragged to death behind a pickup truck. His body was found spread over three miles of road in East Texas. Part of the perpetrators’ defense relied upon claims they had slashed his throat before they dragged Mr. Byrd (so he suffered less), but these claims were countered by the forensic evidence. Mr. Byrd was targeted because he was a African-American.
Mr. Byrd’s death led directly to the passage, in Texas, of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act in 2001. Thanks to the steadfast support of African-American and Hispanic state legislators, the Texas version of the Hate Crimes Act included the first-ever statewide protection for gays and lesbians. Undoubtedly, the Texas act would have passed years earlier if it had not included this protection, and it was only through the united support of all communities over several years that the Texas act was as inclusive as it was. Without this support it is likely that there would still be no Texas protection at all for gays and lesbians.
The Texas act, however, did not include protection based upon gender identity. This is a failure that some Texas legislators, notably Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) have been trying to correct ever since.
Given that Texas already has a hate crimes act, will the federal act have any effect upon Texans? There are, in fact, several benefits of a federal act, some of these are obvious, some not. Some are legal, some political.
Most significantly, of course, the federal act includes protection for people based upon gender identity. Transgender people are some of the most disempowered, vulnerable, and misunderstood people in our country. Consequently, they suffer disproportionately from hate crimes and those hate crimes are disproportionately violent and ultimately fatal. It is estimated that one person in this country is murdered every month because of their gender identity--which is extraordinarily high given the small demographic population. (For those who have participated in the Transgender Day of Remembrance this is probably not news). So, gender identity protection is a significant hallmark of today’s federal act.
The lasting legacy of the federal Hate Crimes Act, however, is likely to be the political line that has been crossed. For the first time ever at the federal level, sexual orientation and gender identity are included in the "laundry list" enumeration of protected classes. This marks a graduation, of sorts, for the LGBT community marking our passage from the "minority among minorities" status that treated LGBT people as unworthy of protection to "accepted minority community" status.
To mix metaphors, the LGBT community has taken its first step toward full minority community status, against which (like the other established minority communities) discrimination is legally, socially, and morally unacceptable. And, much like the passage of the Texas Hate Crimes Act, the willingness of all minority and targeted communities to hang together and insist upon inclusion, and this time full LGBT inclusion, in the federal Hate Crimes Act means that we can work with anyone, and they with us, to pass legislation and advance the cause of equality.
The raw fact of a victory for the LGBT community is, in itself, politically important. No longer can a federal politician say "I support equality, but a bill with full LGBT inclusion will not pass." Wrong. It just did. No longer will LGBT inclusion be the dreaded death knell for a good human rights bill--the unchallengeable, yet unsupported, assumption behind a politician’s sympathetic "I’d like to help you, but....." LGBT protection can pass. It has passed! Henceforth, it will be difficult to create any list of enumerated classes or human rights legislation that does not fully include the LGBT community.
Beyond the federal political implications, the (now, as of today) existence of the federal Hate Crimes Act will also directly affect the prosecution of hate crimes in Texas. The federal act gives the United States Attorney general the power to prosecute violent hate crimes in instances when there is no state hate crime law, a state is not enforcing its own hate crime law, or when a state asks for help. In other words, the federal law says "Do it, or we’ll do it for you!" As much as Texas politicians love to bemoan federal interference, the threat of that interference is likely to spur Texas prosecutors to act.
Because Texas has no hate crimes protection based on gender identity, any hate crime in Texas against a transgender person now automatically qualifies for federal prosecution. This is infinitely more protection against hate crimes than transgender people had before. It also makes it more likely that the Texas legislature will pass a bill to include gender identity protection in our own Texas Hate Crimes Act, if for no other reason than to keep federal prosecutors out of the hate crimes business in Texas.
Under the new law, the federal government can also get involved in hate crimes prosecutions if a state is not enforcing its own laws. This federal authority could motivate Texas politicians and prosecutors, as well. Texas police officers have investigated over 1,800 potential hate crimes since the Texas James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act was passed in 2001. But, Texas prosecutors have only tried fewer than a dozen cases in which they sought a conviction as a hate crime. Fear of federal interference may lead more Texas prosecutors to seek hate crimes convictions. That same reluctance to see federal interference might lead Texas politicians to ask "why aren’t more hate crimes being prosecuted as such?" This motivation could lend more political support to the proposal to conduct a Hate Crimes Study, carried by Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth) for the last two sessions. Such a study is intended to identify ways to make the Texas hate crimes act better, and more enforceable. At the same time, the findings of such a study might convince the feds that Texas prosecutors were, or were not, really trying to enforce their own laws.
Today, then, is a good day to take a few minutes to think about where we are, as an LGBT movement. We’ve come a long way, frequently because of the violence that has been inflicted upon our community—either as a group (ala Stonewall or Rainbow Lounge) or individually (ala Matthew Shepard, Harvey Milk, et al. ad infinitum). Today’s signing marks just such progress. It’s nice that someone will get punished for beating the hell out of you, just because you might be LGBT.
At the same time, it reminds us we have a long way to go toward full equality. You can still be fired in Texas just because you’re gay. You can be denied the opportunity to adopt because you’re a lesbian. You cannot have both your adoptive parents on your birth certificate if they’re the same sex. If your partner is in the hospital, you can be denied the right to sit at their bedside. If you’re a Texas kid, you still face challenges in school and you are far, far, more likely than straight kids to drop out of school, attempt suicide, be beaten or kicked out of the house and wind up on the streets. Just because of your sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
Yet, there is hope. Today’s victory is strong proof of that. And we have the momentum. But we have a long, long way to go. Join us in the journey. You make equality happen.
Posted by Randall Terrell, Political Director