Why Won’t Conservatives Call Gay-Bashing a Hate Crime?

Over the last month, while all eyes seem to have been on health care reform or the scandal of pedophilic cover-ups in the Catholic Church, my attention has been captured by two independent but related events—one unfolding in a city-to-city bus ride, the other in my home state of Oklahoma.

The first of these events was the launch of the 2010 Soulforce Equality Ride, which rolled into Pheonixville, PA, on March 5 to visit Valley Forge Christian College—its first stop on a journey that would take it to college campuses across the country. As I write this, the riders are visiting Belhaven University in Jackson, MS. Before it is done, the busload of young adults, mostly college-age gays and lesbians, will have visited sixteen colleges and universities which have one thing in common: all have policies discriminatory towards sexual minorities.

I’ve been interested in the Equality Ride ever since the first busload of young adults set off in 2006 (in no small measure because my cousin, Jacob Reitan, was one of its principal founders). Its mission is to nonviolently challenge discriminatory college policies, to pursue constructive dialogue with administrators and students, and to stand in visible solidarity with the closeted gays and lesbians at these campuses, students who risk expulsion (or being pressured into “reparative therapy”) if their sexuality is discovered.

If there is an overarching message that the Equality Riders bring, I think it would be this: that the discriminatory policies are part of a broader ideology that does real violence, both physical and spiritual, to the lives of sexual minorities. Because such policies are not merely about prohibiting behavior, they are about privileging those fortunate enough to be straight, and denying sexual minorities the right to pursue love, intimacy, life partnership, family.

Nothing personal”

The other event that captured my attention this month came as more of a surprise. On March 10, an Oklahoma State Senator gutted a bill that was before the State Senate to insert the language of another bill that had been killed in committee. In this way, the Oklahoma State Senate unexpectedly passed a bill whose function was twofold: to reaffirm a state-level understanding of hate crimes that excludes sexual orientation from the protected class; and to shield perpetrators of homophobic hate crimes from prosecution under the federal Matthew Shepard Act. If passed by the Oklahoma House, the bill would prohibit officials and agents of the state from cooperating with federal agents pursuing criminal cases that fall under the federal hate crimes law. [Editors Note: Oklahoma House Rep. Mike Shelton was able to kill the bill in committee early this week.]

On the surface, it’s a perplexing bill. Regardless of what one thinks about the ethics of homosexual acts, can’t we all agree that it’s a serious crime to single out gays and lesbians for violence and harassment just because of their sexuality? And doesn’t such violence fall squarely within the legal understanding of “hate crimes”—crimes motivated by a kind of ideological hatred of a group whose members are targeted not for any personal reasons but simply by virtue of their group membership? 

But if we think more deeply about hate crimes legislation, we can begin to see why some religious conservatives might be eager to avoid having such violence legally classified as hate crime.

Hate crimes have been singled out for special legal status largely because they are recognized to be the most overt expressions of an oppressive ideology. By an “oppressive ideology” I mean a belief system that views the marginalization, oppression, or even destruction of an identified “out-group” as good in itself. If this out-group flourishes, if its members gain access to the same goods enjoyed by the in-group, it will be a disaster.

Violence motivated by that kind of ideology, precisely because it’s “nothing personal,” constitutes a different kind of social problem than do other acts of criminal violence. In many ways hate crimes are more like terrorism: Innocent members of the targeted group are victimized for the purpose of terrorizing the group as a whole.

Such domestic terrorism usually becomes most pronounced when social reforms threaten an established pattern of discrimination and bias. As Sartre noted in his classic work, Anti-Semite and Jew, membership in an in-group functions for these ideologues as a source of personal worth; but it can do so only if there is a contrasting out-group that bears the stamp of inferiority.

And so, when broad institutional systems of oppression begin to break down, ideologues experience it as a threat to their self-worth and feel compelled to “take matters into their own hands,” often through bursts of overt violence.

But what all of this means is that to label homophobic violence a hate crime is to label it as more than just an isolated violent act by some antisocial nut. Acknowledging that gay bashing is a hate crime does more than just say that gay-bashing is wrong. It says that a dangerous ideology lies behind it—an ideology holding that it’s right to exclude gays and lesbians from full participation in the life of the community, that if gays gain access to the same goods enjoyed by heterosexuals it will be a disaster. To call gay-bashing a hate crime is to say that, as the heterosexist system of oppression begins to wane, the government will not tolerate those who take matters into their own hands by violently putting gays and lesbians “back in their place.”

A Master Plan to “Destroy the Family”?

But if all of this is correct, the recognizing of gay-bashing as a hate crime gives rise to questions that some will find very uncomfortable. Questions like: To what extent are the anti-gay teachings of religious conservatives contributing to the ideologies of hate that motivate gay-bashing? Or, to bring the question to bear on a specific example: Does the religiously-justified anti-gay rhetoric of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family bear any meaningful resemblance to the racist rhetoric of those who defended Jim Crow against progressive challenges?

Well, does it? Consider the notorious passage from the April 2004 Focus on the Family Newsletter: “For more than 40 years, the homosexual activist movement has sought to implement a master plan that has had as its centerpiece the utter destruction of the family.”

The destruction of the family? Hasn’t the main focus of the “homosexual activist movement” over the last 40 years been to achieve social equality for gays and lesbians, to repeal sodomy laws and to gain rights to such things as uncloseted military service and civil marriage? How does any of that qualify as an effort to destroy the family? In a May 23, 2004 televised simulcast to hundreds of churches, entitled “The Battle for Marriage,” Dobson offers his answer: “Traditional marriage between one man and one woman cannot co-exist with homosexual marriage. It will destroy the family.”

In other words, if this minority group gains access to the same social goods available to the rest of us, that by itself will be sufficient to destroy the bedrock institution of society and bring ruin to all. This is the core message of all oppressive ideologies: Equality for the out-group means ruin for the in-group. The out-group must be marginalized and oppressed in order for the in-group to flourish.

And, like all such bifurcating ideologies, when the out-group is perceived as making inroads toward equality, there are those who—in order to stave off the promised ruin, or to strike a blow for the in-group, or to defend a sense of self-worth—will beat to death some young man whose only crime is that he was gay and vulnerable.

And this brings me back to the Soulforce Equality Riders. Right now, a bus full of young adults is driving across the country, visiting colleges that, based on their understanding of religious teachings, make the marginalization of gays and lesbians a matter of institutional policy. Right now, these Equality Riders are attempting to dialogue with the administrators who enforce these policies and the students and staff who live under them—not for the purpose of starting debates, but in order to share their stories, stories about the effects such policies have had in their lives.

These religious colleges may call their policies a matter of faithfulness to God’s witness, but in the face of the personal stories these Equality Riders have to share, what is called God’s witness starts to sound more and more like an ideology of oppression—something that is awfully hard to reconcile with belief in a God of love. The life stories of these young men and women expose what seems to be a contradiction within conservative religious teachings.

At every college they visit, there is likely to be someone who will really listen to these stories, and who will begin to be transformed. And there is also likely to be someone who, gripped by something like Dobson’s rhetoric, will see these young people as a threat to the very fabric of society—perhaps believing Dobson when he says, in his book Bringing Up Boys, that “the greatest threat to your children” isn’t abuse or neglect or drugs but the homosexual movement, which poses “a particular danger to your wide-eyed boys, who have no idea what demoralization is planned for them.”

Someone will watch these earnest Equality Riders as they sing Christian songs and speak about acceptance and equality. Standing at the fringes, this person will observe them invoke the mantles of love and justice in the name of what Dobson has labeled social ruin and the degradation of the innocent. This person—most likely a man—will watch, and he will seethe, and he will want to strike out, to beat them down, to put them back in their subordinated place. Or, if the Equality Riders themselves can’t be readily attacked, he may make do with someone else.

Suppose he lashes out in overt violence. To call it a hate crime would be to condemn not merely his isolated act, but the teachings that helped to fuel it—teachings that emanate not only from Dobson’s institutional pulpit but from real pulpits in churches all across the country; teachings that help to perpetuate such things as the discriminatory policies of religious colleges and universities.

This is not to say that hate crimes legislation criminalizes the ideological teachings themselves. Calling racially-motivated violence a hate crime does not revoke the Constitutional guarantee of free speech that protects someone’s right to espouse racist ideas, from the pulpit or anywhere else. Rather, it treats criminal acts motivated by these racist ideas as deserving special attention. Likewise for hate crime legislation pertaining to homophobic violence. Contrary to what some opponents of the Mathew Shepard Act have claimed, people remain free to harbor and even promulgate heterosexist and homophobic beliefs.

But to admit that gay-bashing is a hate crime is to admit that it is fueled by broader cultural forces and teachings. It is to take a step toward admitting that what is being taught by some religious communities—perhaps even one’s own—may play a role in promoting real evil. It is to take a step toward admitting that the Equality Riders and others who are confronting the religious bastions of heterosexist discrimination, rather than being enemies of God, may well be the agents of divine love.

And that, I think, is why some Oklahoma legislators have voted to insulate homophobic violence from the “hate crime” label. At least on a subconscious level, I suspect they see a connection between homophobic violence and the beliefs to which they cleave. To call gay-bashing a hate crime would mean they couldn’t merely condemn the gay bashers. They’d also have to condemn themselves, their churches, and the broader cultural forces with which they identify.

My challenge to conservative legislators is this: If you really think your belief system is innocent, then you have no need to protect it in this way. And if you suspect that your belief system is not innocent, then it shouldn’t be protected. Either way, you ought to call a hate crime what it is.