Monday, November 10, 2008

You Can't Fight Hate Crimes With Hate Crimes

"A hate crime, also known as a bias crime, is a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin." Source:

Nearly a decade ago I wrote a paper for my English 2010 class arguing vehemently, adamant that hate crimes legislation must be expanded to include sexual orientation. Our country was standing in the wake of the Matthew Shepard incident, an atrocity that left me breathless, tearful and angry.

The names of the handful of gay friends I had at the time kept running through my head. Alan, Brock, Kyle, Danny...* I was helpless to protect them from the hate and evil that many in the world desired to inflict on them. I had no extraordinary influence on government. But I did what I could. I researched carefully, I framed my arguments with every ounce of ethos, pathos and logos I could muster. The giant A written in red marker on the front of that paper meant a little more to me than others I'd gotten. I, as insignificant as I was, could make a compelling argument for this change. Surely someone, somewhere who was smarter than I and had greater influence and power could make a strong enough argument to make it happen.

I thank heaven that now those two words "sexual orientation" take up their proper space in the FBI's definition of hate crimes. No person should be subject to another's hate and unkindness simply because of who they are. And when that hate and bias is what motivates a criminal activity, that crime should exact a greater degree of punishment. Why? Because, like terrorism, when a person is targeted because of an aspect of who they are, every person who identifies with that characteristic feels targeted as well. Matthew Shepard's death sent ripples of fear through the entire gay community just as the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon left much of America feeling shaky and frightened. Hate crimes can have a much more far-reaching impact than regular crimes.

Now I am a white, heterosexual Mormon and Utahn standing in the wake of Proposition 8 and the furor surrounding it. I am, perhaps, a pretty unpopular specimen of human at the moment.

There have now been protests near my holiest places. Though I find this distasteful and misdirected, I recognize and respect it as a legitimate and legal exercise of free speech. Gratefully, I have heard no reports of violence or criminal activity surrounding these events.

As Mormons have worked along with other religious groups and other Californians for the passage of Proposition 8, they have been subjected to vandalism, verbal abuse, threatened with physical harm. I worry that because the LDS church is the most misunderstood, most visible and most highly organized of the groups who took part in the push for Prop 8, they are those who will continue to be at most risk for continued threats and harm. Hate crimes perpetrated out of bias against their religion may have the added consequence of making all Mormons feel threatened and insecure.

Still, I feel the same way as one woman in California. She posted a yellow sign proclaiming her support of Proposition 8. This led someone to park a car at her curb with "Bigots live here." painted on the windows. She said something to the effect of "Now we're getting a taste of where they live."

And it's true. Gays have been living with hate crimes, misunderstanding and malignment for years. They have been threatened, harmed, discriminated against because of who they are and how they choose to live. And I can imagine that the passage of Proposition 8 felt like more of the same, only with the weight of legal legitimacy and exact numbers quantifying it. I can't even begin to imagine how painful that must be for them.

And regardless of the legitimately positive intentions of many involved in the push for Proposition 8, there is no denying that the campaign's success was partly tied to fear and misunderstanding. There were certainly many compassionate individuals who cast their ballot in favor of Proposition 8 because they truly believed it was a necessary measure to protect traditional, heterosexual families and their religious rights. Sadly, I am quite certain that there were just as many who voted the same way out of fear, hatred and misunderstanding. It would be naive and insulting for me to believe otherwise.

So, why shouldn't the gay community attack back -- boycott Utah, target Mormons because their church leadership was part of this, do to us what has been done to them for so long?

The first reason? Because it's wrong to hurt another human being.

The second reason? Because it may be ineffective and misguided, perhaps even counterproductive.

If we continue to harm one another because of our differences, we continue to polarize ourselves into opposite camps that may never be able to find a workable solution. And the one thing I believe most strongly about this whole situation is that there has got to be a win-win solution.

If we are ever going to find it we need for all of us, even those who disagree with us, to be able to see clearly.

And you know what they say about an eye for an eye.

Keep reading this week as I explore the ideas of rights, separation of church and state and what I believe might be a recipe for true equality.

And please comment and check back on the comments. I'd love for this blog to become a safe space for discussion this week.

*Names changed.


Mommy Bee said...

I want to throw in a couple of thoughts...
1--every crime is a hate crime, isn't it? I mean, isn't every murder motivated by hate? Every beating? I guess I feel like the terminology is poor.
Which is not to say that I disagree with your premise. I was involved with a production of The Laramie Project in college. It was deeply moving, and really made me think a lot about people and what they do and why. There is a church who sends out protesters to EVERY production of that show, even a little state college in rural Washington...I was student teaching at the time, so I was unable to join the peaceful counter-protest, but I sure wanted to.
2--I have friends (and family members) who are gay or bisexual. I support them as people but of course not the lifestyle...I think a lot of people neglect to make that separation.
3--it makes me sad to hear all the pro-prop 8 people be called bigots...I think the names they choose to call us are actually very telling of who THEY are. They are not willing to try to understand our side, and yet they call us names for 'not understanding' their side...bigotry isn't just about who your target is, it's about not being willing to listen and have the conversation!!

Heather said...

Mommy Bee,

First, I agree that "hate crime" is a poor term. I haven't heard of any "love crimes." :) Bias crime is a better term, but still leaves something to be desired.

"...bigotry isn't just about who your target is, it's about not being willing to listen and have the conversation!!"


Agreeing to disagree is a lost art, I think.

We need to learn to love and trust each other despite our differences.