inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in hate crime legislation controversial

Should GLBT citizens be entitled to civil liberties and protections despite concerns of Christian groups that these protections violate Biblical precepts and constitute “special rights”?

Fred Phelps at Matthew Shepard's funeral from Slate Magazine

This image shows the Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church demonstrating outside the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the victim of a vicious hate crime in 1998 that captured the public consciousness.  Phelps’ presence at Shepard’s funeral evoked outrage and shock. Not shown in the frame are the mourners on their way to the funeral or the counter-demonstrators who arrived to shield them from Phelps.  Although Phelps arguably represents the extremity of anti-glbt movements, his signs proclaiming “MATT IN HELL” and “NO SPECIAL LAWS FOR FAGS” encapsulate the rhetoric used by more mainstream groups opposed to extending civil rights and protections to glbt citizens based on religious dogma. Some conservative groups seeking to deny civil rights and protections to glbt citizens based on Old Testament proscriptions against homosexuality and transsexualism view hate crime legislation as extending “special rights” to glbt people who should be killed and condemned to damnation.

Christian conservatives protest inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in hate crime legislation. Image taken from traditionalvalues.org

This photo depicts Christian conservatives demonstrating against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Bill by reading biblical passages against homosexuality and giving speeches.  The inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the bill was unsettling to some conservative Christians who fear the new legislation will infringe on their 1st Amendment right to condemn homosexuality from the pulpit and are concerned clergy could be prosecuted if their words incite violence against GLBT people.  Some members of the Traditional Values Coalition in attendance equate homosexuality with necrophilia and pedophilia.  Opponents of this legislation argue that no special laws are needed to protect glbt people from hate crimes and it is unfair that hate crimes are treated differently from other murders.

Others argue that the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in hate crime legislation is necessary due to the disproportionate number of glbt people targeted and the severity of the crimes.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, approximately 3% of the population identifies as gay or lesbian, yet they account for 18% of the total hate crimes.  This means that they are six times more likely to be targeted for hate crimes.  The number of hate crimes perpetrated against transgender people is even more astounding.  Statistics cited by the Human Rights Campaign estimate that one in twelve transgender people are murdered , compared with ordinary people who only have a 1 in 18,000 chance of being murdered.   A 2000 survey of 4,000 transgendered people in Washington D.C. found that 17% reported being assaulted with a weapon.  No accurate statistics on transgender hate crime victims were kept by the FBI, but hopefully this will be rectified by the passage of hate crime legislation and result in better enforcement.   A CNN report last April 2009 marks  the first time a person was charged for specifically targeting a transgender person.

The distinct nature of hate crimes is described on the SPLC website by a criminologist from Northeastern University, Jack Levin :

“The overkill is certainly an indicator that hate was present. When you see excessively brutal crimes, and you know the victim is gay or black or Latino or transgender, you have to suspect that hate was a motive. There’s a sense of outrage in these crimes that someone different is breathing or existing.”

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