Saturday, March 05, 2005

Hate Crimes Against Gays Remain a Growing Threat

By Steve Charing

At a recent meeting I attended, a gay man disputed the proposition that gay people aren’t safe on the streets. "I think violence against gays is over-inflated," he claimed with a straight face. "My friends never mention any attacks on gays." He tried to reason, "You go to Fells Point and people are always being beaten and robbed there. They’re drunk and vulnerable. It’s not against gays."

The sounds in the room immediately following these nutty pronouncements were the sounds of eyes rolling back, heads being scratched and just plain groans. I knew that if glbt folks don’t see the dangers, how could we expect our straight legislators to add language that cover murders, assaults, vandalism and other criminal offenses directed towards the glbt community in the Hate Crimes Bill now before the General Assembly?

This gentleman failed to understand that hate crimes are those targeting a community at large with no motive other than hatred. An individual’s being attacked simply for being gay or being perceived to be gay is a hate crime. It is accomplished with venom: repeated kicks, punches, swings of a baseball bat rendering the victim unrecognizable, multiple knife stab wounds, every bullet in a shooter’s gun is discharged. "This is for all you faggots out there!" Those are hate crimes! A drunken slob being robbed outside a Fells Point pub is completely different. How can you compare?

Clearly, there’s some educating that needs to be done.

Hate crimes have existed since man realized other people were different, and then he learned how to hate. These acts are carried out because of revulsion towards a victim’s race, religion, national origin, gender, age, political affiliation and yes, sexual orientation.

Matthew Sheppard’s brutal beating murder outside Laramie, WY in 1998 put a human face on hate crimes that victimize glbt individuals. Immediately following this tragedy and owing in no small measure to the extraordinary work of Matthew’s mother, Judy Sheppard, who addressed the Lobby Day rally in Annapolis last month, there was a groundswell of momentum building to add gays and lesbians to existing federal and statewide hate crime statutes. By covering this group, penalties to the perpetrators would be increased. The inclusion of gays and lesbians in the federal Hate Crime bill is still dangling in Congress.

However, the Maryland General Assembly (House Bill 692 and Senate Bill 578) is considering such action in the current session after it died last year thanks to the maneuvering of homophobic Senator Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick). Moreover, the bills will also attempt to include "gender identity" since the transgender community is a more vulnerable target and more frequently fail to report such crimes. As reported in the Washington Blade, Sergeant Brett Parson, of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit said, "There is just no protection for transgender people. It's not right, but that's a fact."

This past November the FBI released hate crime statistics compiled for 2003, the latest year such numbers were available. It shows that hate crimes directed towards gays and lesbians accounted for over 16 percent of the total, which ranked second only to race of all criminal offenses motivated by hate. Previously such crimes against gays and lesbians had ranked third—just behind religion. In 2003, there were over 1,400 offenses that targeted gays and lesbians reported with 20 in Maryland alone.

"The new statistics only offer a glimpse of the problem," Cheryl Jacques, former president of the Human Rights Campaign pointed out. "Reporting these crimes is voluntary for local jurisdictions, and hate crimes often go unreported by victims due to fear and stigmatization." And they don’t include transgender people.

With venomous anti-gay oratory polluting the air following the Massachusetts same-sex marriage ruling, a further rise in hate crimes against the glbt community is to be expected. Church leaders and extreme right wing conservative politicians and others have defiled gays in such a way as to promote hatred and violence, although they will deny that’s their intent. There are thugs out there who will use the Bible and the fiery rhetoric from their religious and political leaders as their justification to slit a gay man’s throat.

Equality Maryland, the state’s largest civil rights organization for the lgbt community, is fighting hard to gain passage of a strong hate crimes bill. "Violent crime throughout the United States has been declining in recent years, yet hate crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people continue to rise–and are underreported," said Dan Furmansky, Executive Director of Equality Maryland. "Hate crimes laws are important law enforcement and prosecutorial tools which help to address the actions of the perpetrator and prosecute accordingly. An effective response to hate violence by public officials and law enforcement authorities can play an essential role in deterring and preventing these crimes."

To read more about hate crimes and let your representatives know where you stand, visit www.equalitymaryland.org and click on Legislative Center. One can only hope that the fellow from the meeting will take a look and realize that he is also at risk of being a victim whether he is in Fells Point or elsewhere.

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