25 October 2009
Why I'm Not Celebrating The "Hate Crimes Bill"
It seems that nearly everyone--at least everyone I know--in the LGBT community has been celebrating the inclusion of language that includes transgenders in the so-called "Hate Crimes Bill" and that it looks like the President will sign it this week. If there's any reason to feel good, it's that, if nothing else, public officials as well as other citizens are indeed acknowledging that we are indeed subject to violence simply because we are who we are. In fact, one study says that transgender people are sixteen times as likely to be murdered as anyone else.
I hate to be the one who dumps cold water on anybody, but I must say this: Passage of the bill is not quite the cause for celebration that some believe it to be, any more than gay men and lesbians gaining the right to marry will be. I mention the push for gay marriage, even though that's another discussion unto itself, because it, like the "Hate Crimes Bill," shows how both mainstream politicians as well as LGBT activists too often work for "victories" that have only symbolic value (and sometimes not even that) while missing the underlying issues. Also, I happen to think that more legislation is almost never a good thing, and neither the "Hate Crimes Bill" nor gay marriage changes my mind about that.
However, my chief objection to the "Hate Crimes Bill" what I call its "exceptionalism." In other words, it essentially says that a crime against gay or transgendered people is inherently worse than others because it was committed against a gay or transgendered person. Now, I will say that because I am transsexual, a murder of, or other crime against, an LGBT person affects me in ways that other crimes do not. That, I like to think, is natural: One feels the most for one's own people, whomever they happen to be. Also, I understand the particular dangers we face, having brushed up against them myself, so the poignancy of a person being murdered because she is transgendered or beaten because he is gay is magnified for me. Still, I don't think such a bias--for that is what it is--should be reflected in any law, any more than any other bias should be so encoded.
In other words, I think that if a person is to be punished for killing or beating someone, he or she should incur whatever punishment is meted out because he or she killed or beat someone, not because the victim happened to belong to one group or another.
Some people--again, I am thinking in particular of LGBT activists--argue "hate crimes are different from other crimes," or something to that effect. Indeed they are: When you come right down to it, every crime is different, at least in circumstances, from every other. However, the effect is the same: Someone's life, person or property has been taken away, or at least violated.
Now, I'm no lawyer or scholar of the Constitution, and probably never will be either one. But I know enough to know that under the criminal justice system, a perpetrator's motives are considered in deciding upon his or her guilt or innocence and the type of punishment he or she should receive. One person may harm me because I'm a trans woman; another might want to do the same because I'm ugly or--ahem--because I write posts like this one. Still someone else might hurt me to get the $15.23 in my purse; another, because her husband left her for me. Whatever the motive, the outcome is still the same: that I have been harmed.
In that sense, whatever a person's motive, isn't his or her harming me, by definition, a hate crime? To violate or take a person's life, liberty or property without his or her consent is, at best, enormously disrespectful and, more likely, hateful.
So why, exactly, does it take my being transgendered in order to make the crime worthy of the prosecution that it deserves? Or, even more to the point, why does it take someone's status, whether it's high, low or somewhere in between, to make legislators and the criminal justice system recognize his or her right to live as who he or she is and to be secure in his or her person or property?
In short, why does the fact that I'm transgendered trump the fact that I'm a human being (who happens to be a transgendered female) in some lawmaker's decision that I should have the same rights as anyone else, or that someone should be punished for violating those rights?
To me, prosecuting and sentencing a crime against me or any other LGBT person because of who we are is no different than mourning the death of anyone else who is in any other way "exceptional" over that of someone who is considered "normal" or "ordinary."
And that is exactly what happened after Matthew Shepard's murder. The media trumpeted his fluency in several languages and his leadership skills. Indeed, it's terrible to lose those things, but what would the media have made of him had he been of average IQ or was studying to be an accountant--or, for that matter, had he been a sex worker in Denver? By the same token, I can't help but to wonder whether the media would have paid any attention at all to the disappearance of Laci Peterson had she not been a pretty white woman from a tony Bay Area suburb who'd been a cheerleader at her college. What if she had a been a single mother and a Salvadorian immigrant living in Crocker-Amazon and taking English classes in the Mission district of San Francisco ?
While I don't expect much better from the media (I'm so happy not to have TV reception!), I do want to see respect for life as the fundamental underlying value of the society and culture in which I live. The "Hate Crimes Bill" is no more about that than the sensationalism surrounding Anna Nicole's death was. Instead, it tells judges and juries to evaluate a crime by the status of the victim rather than the life that was taken from him or her.
Doing that isn't going to cause anyone to respect the rights we have because they're the same as theirs. That, in turn, will do nothing to change the "status" we have: a status that leaves us, not only with a one in twelve chance of being murdered, but with a seventy percent chance of being unemployed or working in the underground economy. (And that's in San Francisco, mind you!)
The cynic in me says that the passage of the Hate Crimes Bill is not so different from John Mc Cain's request that Jack Johnson be pardoned. I doubt that he, at his age, will run for President again. However, I suspect that he's thinking about his legacy, especially because he represents one of the two states that does not observe Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday. And, he also knows that his party, the Republican, has about as much support among African Americans than Martin Luther had in the Vatican. Likewise, politicians of all parts of the spectrum realize that LGBT people vote, and that we're anywhere from one in thirty to one in five of the population, depending on which researchers you believe. Whatever the number, it's enough to swing an election.
And, as long as the public is swayed by gestures such as the passage of a "Hate Crimes Bill," it will.