On the eve of a major LGBT equality march on Washington, D.C., the US House of Representatives has passed a piece of legislation designed to protect the gay community against hate crimes. The legislation next faces the Senate; if it passes, President Obama has promised to sign it into law.
This legislation has been in the works for over a decade. Called the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the legislation is named after two famous hate crime victims. Matthew Shepard, a 21 year-old University of Wyoming student, was beaten to death in 1998 by two men he met in a bar. In the same year, 49 year-old James Byrd, Jr. was murdered after accepting a ride from three men in Jasper, TX who stripped him, chained him to their truck, and dragged him down the road. In the wake of these crimes, momentum for a special protection for gay-bashing began to grow, and legislation has been introduced to Congress on a regular basis since, beginning with the first Matthew Shepard Act during the Clinton Administration. The legislation continually foundered, however, held up not only by a Republican control of Congress, but also by questions of whether gender identity should be protected along with sexual orientation.
The new Hate Crimes Prevention Act would criminalize hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity, whether real or perceived, along with other categories. It will be voted on, however, tied to a major defense appropriations bill. A previous stand-alone bill passed the House in April, but the Senate reconsidered in July when leaders saw that that bill was unlikely to pass both houses in any strong form. Instead, they approved it as an amendment to the 2010 defense authorization bill. The provision survived the conference process that brings House and Senate bills in line with each other. The House has now voted on that conference bill, with the hate crimes provision still a part of the defense provisions; they passed the entire package 281 to 146, sending it back to the Senate for final approval. In short, any senator who wants to vote against hate crime legislation will also have to vote against financial support for troops in war.
In voting on the legislation, Democrats and Republicans face nearly opposite choices. Democrats are focused on the civil rights aspect of the legislation, even if they are uncomfortable about the means of passage. For example, Rep. Jared Polis, a Democratic representative from Colorado who is openly gay, spoke positively about the bill even as he expressed reservations about continuing to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan: "What makes [hate] crimes so odious, is that they are not just crimes against individuals; they are crimes against entire communities [to] create environments of fear," he said. "There is a difference between burning a cross on the lawn of an African-American family and an act of simple arson. This legislation clarifies that our country has zero tolerance for hate crimes." Rep. Susan Davis, a Democrat from California, seconded these themes, saying: "[Hate crimes] are committed not solely to harm one particular victim, but to send a message of threat and intimidation to others. Left unchecked, crimes of this kind threaten to unravel the very fabric of American society that our service members strive to protect."
On the other side, Republicans are loathe to vote against funding troops, even as they are outraged by the introduction of social legislation into a military funding package. In the House, some three-quarters of Republicans voted against the entire package in protest against the hate crimes provision. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican from Maryland, told his colleagues to vote against the bill, even though he had helped to create much of its defense package. "[The amendment] violates House rules," he said, "and sets a dangerous precedent by including an extraneous and non-germane bill in Congress' annual national defense strategy and policy bill." In spite of these arguments, many Senate Republicans are expected to vote for the bill as a necessity of supporting the troops.
Such an end-run around Congressional process indicates a certain legislative urgency to the Shepard Act. This might be viewed against the appearance of a strongly critical article about Don't Ask, Don't Tell in a prominent military journal this month, and President Obama's appointment of a gay ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa this week. This Sunday is the National Equality March, 30 years after the first gay rights march on Washington. By Sunday, clearly, the White House would like to have some progress to show to a community that was repeatedly promised concrete change on the campaign trail, and that, on a host of issues from DADT to the Defense of Marriage Act, has been vocally disappointed since. Whether the urgent passage of the Shepard Act would go any way to mending those relationships, it would be one step toward a safer world for LGBT people. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill as early as next week.