Hate in The Heartland
By Kerry Lobel, executive director, NGLTF
Recently, I traveled the middle of the country to discuss the state of violence directed against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in America. These town meetings took me to seven cities in three weeks for a series of forums on hate crimes. From Wichita and Lawrence, Kansas to Nashville, Tennessee to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Oklahoma to Little Rock, Arkansas and to Detroit, Michigan, dozens of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered activists and our allies gathered to tell stories of hate crimes and stories of survival.
Every town shared similar themes. As gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning youth come to visibility, their school districts have been ill-equipped to counsel them or ensure their safety. As communities become more organized and open, violence is still never far from our lives.
In every town, nearly every participant had been either the victim of a hate crime or knew someone that had. Yet the number of documented hate crimes is woefully low. Police and prosecutors are under trained and community members feel unsafe about reporting hate crimes to them. All too often, victims who spoke at these meetings blamed themselves for the crime or felt that others in our community would judge them for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately, community centers, anti-violence projects and other community organizations have stepped up to provide safety education as well as resources to victims of hate crimes.
Hates crime laws provide some of our country's best hopes for coalition building across race, national origin, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Yet, each state on our tour lacked a hate crimes law altogether or one that includes sexual orientation. It is NGLTF's hope that before the year 2000 every state will set public policy that makes it clear that hate crimes will not be tolerated in any city or any state.
Half-way through the trip, I found myself standing on the site of the Oklahoma City bombing. The city-block is leveled now and surrounded by a tall chain link fence. The fence is lined with stuffed animals, poignant notes, and t-shirts and license plates bearing tributes from around the country. It is a monument that pays respect to lives lost as well as one that is filled with hope and courage. What touched me were the oaths, many from children, describing their pledges to work for a better world.
We've each seen the price our society has paid for hatred. And it's time for each of us to commit ourselves to a world that values safety and respects difference. For those in states without any hate crimes laws or laws that do not include sexual orientation, we must work to pass inclusive hate crimes laws. For those in states that have hate crimes laws we must engage in the political process, we must continue to work for change so that these laws remain meaningful.
Eye on Equality is a monthly column that discusses or gives commentary on national and state-level political events or provides a behind-the-scenes look at social movements and trends.