In 1998, the murder of Matthew Shepard sent shock waves through the nation. A 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, Shepard was brutally beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left for dead. Eighteen hours later, a bicyclist found Matthew, initially thinking he was a scarecrow. He was rushed to the hospital and died five days later.
Now, more than a decade later, the U.S. Senate is set to vote on a bill that would give the government additional tools to combat and prevent such heinous acts. This critical legislation, which has already passed in the House of Representatives in a bipartisan vote of 249-175, is aptly named the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act (S. 909). If passed into law, it could prove to be one of the nation's strongest weapons to date to protect those who are most vulnerable to bias-motivated violence.
Though it is widely believed and acknowledged that Matthew Shepard was targeted precisely because of his sexual orientation, his killers were not charged with a hate crime. There wasn't then and still isn't a state hate crime law in Wyoming, and the current federal civil rights law that the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act seeks to update extends to race, religion, or national origin, but not to sexual orientation.
While all violent crimes are reprehensible, hate crimes cannot be measured solely by the harm caused to the individual victim. These acts are among the most pernicious forms of discrimination because they target all those who identify with the victim. This reality leaves many to live in fear and exclusion from the larger society. More broadly hate crimes threaten the core fabric of the diverse and pluralistic societies in which we live, undermining the shared values of equality and nondiscrimination among all individuals. Fighting hate crimes is nothing less than fighting to uphold human rights.
While there has been progress on this front since 1998, there is still a long way to go. At the state level - where the vast majority of hate crimes are and will continue to be investigated and prosecuted - only 30 states and the District of Columbia punish hate crimes based on sexual orientation bias; 30 punish disability bias, 26 gender bias, and 12 gender identity bias.
The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act gives the Department of Justice (DOJ) the power in certain cases to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violence by providing the DOJ with jurisdiction over crimes of violence where the perpetrator has selected the victim because of the person's actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
Importantly, the bill would also makes grants available to state and local communities to train law enforcement officers or assist in state and local investigations and prosecutions of bias-motivated crimes.
The family of Sean Kennedy may have appreciated this protection two years ago. A 20-year old gay man, Kennedy was leaving a bar in South Carolina when a man shouted homophobic epithets, while punching him hard enough to knock him onto the asphalt. One of Kennedy's friends later received a voicemail saying, "You tell your faggot friend when he wakes up, he owes me five hundred dollars for my broken hand." Kennedy never woke up. He died in a hospital later that evening from injuries suffered during the attack.
Although local law enforcement wanted to prosecute the case as a hate crime, they couldn't, because South Carolina has no hate crime law, and the federal statute doesn't apply to violence based on sexual orientation bias.
That critical change cannot come soon enough. According to data collected by the FBI, attacks motivated by sexual orientation bias are on the rise and are characterized by levels of physical violence that, in many cases, exceed the severity of other types of hate crime.
We are calling on all Americans to join us in urging Senators to provide law enforcement officials with the tools they need to hold responsible those who commit these senseless acts of bias-motivated violence. To contact your Senator today and urge passage of S. 909, visit here.
The protections this bill affords are long overdue. The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act addresses hate violence against all Americans - not just some - and will allow the United States to lead by example in its efforts to ensure global leadership in combating all forms of discrimination and bias-motivated violence.
Paul LeGendre is the Director of the Fighting Discrimination program at Human Rights First. Join them at facebook.com/humanrightsfirst and twitter.com/humanrights1st