Hate Crimes Bill—At What Cost?

As a Christian and as a queer man and as a religious professional, I have long wrestled with the concept of what is typically called “hate crime legislation.” I’ve done so knowing that I was not in the larger company of GLBTQ individuals and to “come out” as just having genuine and serious questions raised the specter of being ostracized from polite GLBTQ society. It would be tantamount to questioning the work, for example, of the Human Rights Campaign (which some have done) or any other popular-at-the-time gay cause.

I even sponsored a discussion of “hate crime legislation” at the Unitarian Universalist congregation for which I used to work, having two gay men, each representing the opposing sides of that question, and I did catch a little flack from members of that fellowship for even presuming that there was more than one position to take on the issue.

I watched today as President Obama signed into law the Department of Defense (DOD) funding bill—which had attached to it, the James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard Act—wondering at what cost that victory was achieved. Not that I don’t think there is violence perpetrated on folks for their perceived identity. There is. I, myself, long before the phrase “hate crime” was ever invented, was on the receiving end of such violence (I was in the 7th grade). I know parents of young people who have died as the result of such attacks. There was, in the not so distant past, a young man tragically killed here in my hometown allegedly because he was gay, though local law enforcement begged to differ. But I’ve always wondered, in addition to the philosophical and theological issues contained in that discussion, about two things in particular: one, the effectiveness of such legislation, and two, what cost are we GLBTQ folks prepared to pay for it?

The philosophical and theological issues remain open for discussion. Whether such legislation, good as it may be in intent, reduces the number of crimes of violence committed against persons motivated simply by—to paraphrase the President from the signing ceremony—the color of their skin or who they love or the faith they profess and practice, is a matter still yet to be determined. According to some law enforcement bodies, it does not; no more than the death penalty deters people from killing people. So we can’t look to that to justify our desire for enhanced penalty assessment on certain crimes of violence. Our justification must come from somewhere else.

About today’s (Oct. 28) signing into law of the Byrd-Shepard Act, I do know this—and it was eloquently pointed out, too, by Chris Hedges in a recent truthdig column: the irony of this legislation was probably lost on most GLBTQ folks who, so understandably giddy with the law, took no notice of its context. They were so elated, and rightly so, to finally achieve some legal recognition federally, that the awful truth of the bill escaped them. To wit, a measure designed to enhance protection of innocently attacked people was attached to a larger measure designed to enhance the ability of the United States to continue to kill innocent men, women and children in far off countries.

The title of Hedges’ post is telling: War Is a Hate Crime.

Even the highly respected and clear-thinking Dennis Kucinich did not vote for the bill which is now law. In an interview with Hedges, he said: “To have people have to make a choice, or contemplate the hierarchy of hate crimes, is cynical.”

I agree with Hedges when he argues that the brutality which was seen in the vicious attack on Matt Shepherd simply because he was gay, is indicative of a society in which violence and sadism is not only tolerated, but glorified in so many ways; from people vying for election by giving away AK-47’s—as happened in my own home state of South Carolina—to the blood-soaked video games my partner’s little cousin plays; from gun-toting vice-presidential candidates who shoot defenseless animals from helicopters simply for the sport and pleasure of doing so, to comments my father used to make about turning various Middle East countries into parking lots by the use of nuclear devices.

Hedges writes:

Militarism crushes the capacity for moral autonomy and difference. It isolates us from each other. It has is logical fruition in Abu Ghraib, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with our lack of compassion for our homeless, our poor, our mentally ill, our unemployed, our sick, and yes, our gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual citizens.

I would hope that as thousands of my fellow GLBTQ citizens celebrate this day for which they have so long worked, and so hard, that they not lose sight of the cost which has come with it: a bill authorizing billions of dollars to continue to, and come up with more creative, effecient ways to, kill people.

I’m not going to argue the validity of war or armed conflict here. That’s not the point of this post. The point is, there would have been a much better, more morally clear way of gaining deserved federal recognition—having such a measure passed on its own merits and not attached to any other bill. Politically more difficult? Perhaps. Morally more clear? Definitely.

Hedges references Theodor Adorno writing: “… Adorno wrote, in words gay activists should have heeded, that exclusive preoccupation with personal concerns and indifference to the suffering of others, beyond the self-identified group, made fascism and the Holocaust possible.”

And so to my GLBTQ brothers and sisters, I say rejoice, for sure, and celebrate recognition, finally, of our plight on a federal level; but don’t forget that our celebration in this case comes at a terribly high price—the suffering of hundreds, if not thousands, of others equally innocent.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that; I’m not sure my understanding of the teachings of Jesus will allow me to be comfortable with that.