Some Thoughts on Hate Crimes
The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming a little more than a year ago focused national attention on a long-standing reality for many lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people: the widespread fear and hatred of people outside the so-called norms of sexual expression all too often explodes into acts of violence.
The two young men who murdered Matthew Shepard have been tried for their crimes: one has begun a life sentence and the other two life sentences. In the past year there has been more public discussion than ever before about the anti-queer violence visited upon so many on a daily basis. Frightening statistics about the scale of the problem are reported in the mainstream press. There is a call for "hate crimes" legislation coming from virtually every national lgbt (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) organization, from most local lgbt groups and from a variety of leaders from different civil rights and progressive organizations.
But something is missing from this picture...something critical to any meaningful effort to stop the homophobic violence. There is no - okay, I'm exaggerating a little - there is hardly any analysis of WHY lgbt people are the targets of such violence. What does the demand for sexual freedom tap into that is so scary or confusing for people? What structures are being challenged just by the existence of gay people?
Beyond that, there is shockingly little discussion in the queer community about the broader context of what can only be understood as the culture of violence we all live in, every day. Those of you reading these commentaries on a regular basis get a lot of information about the violence of U.S. foreign policy, whether it is the ongoing bombing assaults on Iraq or the ravages brought on by economic warfare. I bet you think about the violence of racism; rape, battering and other violence directed at women; the brutality of the criminal "justice" system and the death penalty; the harm done by an economic system which leaves literally millions starving worldwide while a handful have more money that we can even imagine.
Violence is a way of life in this country. How frequently do we see news stories about a workplace or high school shooting, or an off duty cop who goes home and kills his wife and kids, or parents who brutalize or abandon their children? The culture of violence is all around is: from toy guns for kids to the newest in weapons delivery systems, from weapons on the streets to more nations with nuclear weapons and the Senate's refusal to sign a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty!
As an activist in the queer community I am horrified by the lack of attention to this larger context of violence. Some local lgbt organizations are working with others to stop police brutality, and a few of our national groups condemned the murder of James Byrd last year, but for the most part the discussion of violence against gay people is presented in the narrowest terms possible...leading to the weakest of ideas for how to handle to problem. Which brings me back to the issue of hate crimes legislation.
Maybe I'm missing something, but I just don't understand how a new category for punishment prevents the crime from being committed in the first place? After all, isn't this one of the great lessons about the death penalty...the possibility of execution if convicted does not in fact deter the commission of crimes?
In October I went to a New York City rally to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard. The over 5,000 angry people who marched last year just a week after his murder had shrunk to a very passive group of several hundred folks, many of whom wanted to march but event organizers had instead invited countless speakers to the platform. Over and again, elected officials and others cried out for hate crimes legislation. In the more than 20 people I heard speak that evening only one said anything about stopping the crimes before they happen. He was a high school teacher who talked about the need to deal with the hard issues with kids before they go beating up people just because they are "different."
And this, in turn, brings me back again to the broader issue of the violence, hatred, and intolerance all around us. Relying on state legislatures or the U.S. Congress to pass hate crimes laws just doesn't cut it. Unless and until we take on the whole package...from the armed expressions and abusive use of state power to the flood of guns on our streets, from the ever-expanding military budget to the epidemic of rape and battering...no single piece of legislation will end the violence.
It is time for the lgbt movement to stop this almost obsessive demand for hate crimes legislation and instead build strategic alliances with other communities struggling to end the violence which touches us all, every day. It is time for us all to deal with what causes violence in the first place. After all, isn't that what radicals are supposed to be all about?
Leslie Cagan: Decades long organizer in a board range of peace and social justice movements, Leslie is presently involved in struggles to defend Open Admissions at the City University of New York (CUNY). She is a co-chair of the National Committees of Correspondence and is on the board of the Astraea National Lesbian Action Foundation. Leslie is part of the growing effort to re-invigorate a left/progressive presence in the lesbian/gay/bi-sexual/transgender movement.