Homophobia: All in the Family?

The Schumer-Kennedy Bill Increases Hate-Crime Penalties

Matthew Shepard, brutally beaten by homophobes in Laramie, Wyoming, died in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. After his death, an attempt to pass a law against hate crimes, including antigay ones, was defeated in Fort Collins— by a margin larger than it had been in 1988.

In Newsday(November 12), Ben Kemena, a Denver internist who works with gay support groups, noted:

"Anchorage, Honolulu, Fort Collins, Ogunquit— diverse American spaces— are bound in unity on one concern. All voted against offering civil rights to gay Americans. Each individual election— in Alaska, Hawaii, Colorado, and Maine— carried its own special circumstances and dynamics, but the chorus is a singular voice."

Recently, Who's Who Among American High School Studentspublished a survey of various attitudes, including prejudices, among 3123 of this nation's leading high school students. All of them have an A or B average, and 97 percent intend to go to college.

As reported by Nancie Katz in the Daily News(November 12), "48 percent say they are prejudiced against homosexuals— up 19 percentage points over last year. By contrast, 15 percent are prejudiced against Hispanics or blacks." That form of bigotry is "double the number from 1997."

Where did the demonstrators at Matthew Shepard's funeral learn to yell, "All fags go to hell"? Where do people learn any form of bigotry?

Fourteen-year-old Kate DiCicco, a ninth grader at Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan, offers an explanation for an increase in racism:

"I think sometimes kids learn to be racist at school. I remember when I first came to school, you had all the black people on one side of the room and all the white people on the other."

Joe Drause, associate publisher of Who's Who, has a more encompassing theory for various forms of bigotry:

"The bottom line is: involvement of parents makes the most difference."

The odds are— though not in all cases— that kids who are already homophobic in high school will transmit that attitude to their own children.

What can be done?

It seems to me that schools could— and should— be the place where ignorance and prejudices are thoroughly aired. Not in a few "let us respect differences" sessions but in a systematic, open-ended exploration of where and how these biases start and evolve. And then, let there be as much time as it will take to exorcise those attitudes through focusing on the history of bigotry and its effects.

And most important, schools must create and sustain an atmosphere that will enable kids to speak freely about their prejudices and fears.

There should be different approaches for different age groups, but this basic education should start in elementary schools because the slurs begin there. I would appreciate any suggestions from readers about all of this.

Many Americans— not only gays and lesbians— are convinced that a more immediately effective way to combat homophobia is through hate-crimes legislation. Putting sunlight on latent and actual bigotry in the schools may be useful. But in terms of the much larger community— it is argued— crimes of violence against gays and lesbians should not only be punished, but must be given extra penalties.

According to the valuable Legal Watch— published by the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum at Vanderbilt University— "Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia have hate-crimes laws that include sexual orientation. Another 19 states [including New York] have hate-crimes laws that do not include sexual orientation." And 10 states— according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force— have no hate-crimes laws at all.

Most of these state laws mandate that when a crime of violence is targeted against a specific group— blacks, women, the disabled, Jews, members of other religious faiths, or gays and lesbians— there are additional penalties.

If a perpetrator makes it verbally clear that he or she is beating the victim because, say, that person is black or gay, the criminal will get another two or so years in prison.

Next year, the new Congress will vote on the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It was submitted in the last Congress by then congress member Charles Schumer and Senator Ted Kennedy.

This federalization of hate crimes defines them as a "violent act causing death or bodily injury because of the actual or perceived race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability of the victim."

Conviction will bring prison terms or fines. What makes this proposed law more powerful than any previous legislation is that it gives victims two chances to punish a violent hater. If a state prosecution doesn't work out, the victim can go to federal authorities and have the alleged perpetrator tried again.

Whether state or federal, hate-crimes laws are seen by their supporters as deterrents and also as a powerful symbol to the community at large that violent bigotry is not just a crime against a single person, because it affects other members of the same group (blacks, gays, et al.). Therefore, the punishment should be greater.

Also, these laws are intended as a message to the greater community that the importance of these particular crimes cannot be underestimated in a democratic society.

Next time: the case againsthate crimes laws. For one instance, the Schumer-Kennedy law will greatly increase double-jeopardy prosecutions. It will also enable the FBI— in crimes where bias is not clear— to probe the backgrounds of alleged assailants, going back years and years and even considering publications they once read or what they may have said in the local bar. This has already happened in state hate-crimes prosecutions.

The best intentions can have dangerous consequences.

 
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