A victory in the fight to make hate crimes history!
Yesterday, Oct. 28, 2009, heralded a historic moment for human rights as President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act into law. This act expands the already existing hate crime protection to include crimes based on one's sexual orientation, gender, disability, or gender identity, and also allows federal authorities to support local investigations, as well as step in when local authorities unable or unwilling to investigate. For the first time in our nation's history, GLBT people and people with disabilities have the legal right to safety from hate violence.
Before the Hate Crime Prevention Act, a 1968 federal law only protected a narrow class of hate crimes: those committed on the basis of race, religion, national origin, and when the victim was engaging in a federally protected activity, such as voting. It did not cover crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability, or those unconnected to a federally protected activity. Therefore, the GLBT community, as well those living with disabilities, had no protection under federal law.
I was actually a little surprised at the lack of coverage this event has received in the media, especially considering its implications regarding gender. It's interesting that the bill addresses hate crimes based on gender and gender identity, identifying them as two separate issues. When we say "gender" we are usually referring to women's rights, and "gender identity" would then refer to trans' rights regarding one's gender presentation -- how one dresses, speaks, which restrooms one uses, etc. Identifying both issues specifically separately seems to be a safeguard, making sure all gender-based hate crimes are covered. It is interesting to think of both movements in this light, though. From the perspective of a hate crime, aren't women's rights and trans rights the same thing? But I'll leave that for another post. This is a celebration!
The Hate Crime Prevention Act has been in the works since 1989, and it has taken the tireless dedication of many individuals and organizations to get to this victory. A number of Jewish organizations contributed to this campaign, including the Anti-Defamation League and the National Council of Jewish Women. In a public statement, NCJW President Nancy Ratzan wrote:
"The new law strikes a historic blow against hate and puts the federal government squarely in the battle to ensure that the full spectrum of hate crimes is deemed intolerable in this nation and is vigorously and appropriately prosecuted and punished. It also stands as a shining example of what can be achieved when people organize to do the right thing and persist through years of struggle to make change happen."
Ratzan's words reminded me of all of the Jewish women who persisted in the struggles for equal rights, particularly Bella Abzug. Abzug fought for civil rights and women's rights, and was a ferocious supporter of equality. The legacy she and other brave Jewish women left us has endured, and there is no doubt that our foremothers would be proud of the change they have inspired.
The transcript to the video can be found here.
If you're looking for more information on the Hate Crime Act, the Human Rights Campaign has put together an excellent website, complete with background information, a timeline, and a multimedia archive.