Hate in the Heartland

An op-ed By Jeff Walsh, sent to The (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) Times Leader

(this piece was written before Matthew had died)

When I heard about Matthew Shepard this past weekend, the gay University of Wyoming student who was severely beaten and left for dead, one thought crossed my mind and the minds of gay and lesbian Americans across the country -- that could be me.

Matthew was short statured and skinny. His skull was smashed with pistol, leaving a two-inch deep gash. He was dragged to a fence post, where he was tied spread-eagled, beaten and burned while he begged for his life. He was left there to die. Bicyclists 12 hours later almost didn't stop because they thought Matthew was a scarecrow.

On farms, if coyotes are threatening the livestock, the farmer hangs the carcass of a dead coyote on the fence. This is done so other coyotes know not to enter the farm or they may suffer the same consequences. For gay youth in Wyoming, and possibly throughout much of the country, Matthew is all the warning they need to stay quiet about their sexuality.

I can't emphasize how damaging staying closeted can be to an individual, although being out doesn't have to mean every person you pass on the street has to know. There are a lot of levels between being closeted and being a vocal gay activist.

Matthew chose to be openly gay, was allegedly told by his attackers that they were also gay, and is now clinging to his life in critical condition. His attackers are now in custody, and all that can be done is to send Matthew your prayers and hope for his recovery.

Although the case in Wyoming seems clear-cut, the state does not currently have any hate crimes legislation. I understand that many people do not understand the notion of hate crimes. Many people will look at this case and say labeling this a hate crime is redundant considering it is already an obvious crime. I disagree.

Most crime is committed for a reason, whether it be to get money, drugs or for other domestic issues. Hate crimes target people because of who they are and not for any other reason or end result. Hate crimes also affect people beyond the person who is victimized. If a black child is beaten because of their race, every black person (or any other racial minority) that hears about the incident is affected. It fractures the unity to which this country aspires.

In Wilkes-Barre, I've heard many tales of anti-gay attacks that go unreported. These victims stay silent because to report their crime could also publicly announce their sexuality to their families, friends and co-workers. It's just not an option for them. I've heard about people holding their sides, bleeding where they were slashed with a knife, begging people not to call the police and just to take them home. These people were attacked near local gay bars, so it appears to be targeted because of their sexuality.

Police involved with the investigation into Matthew's attack have reported that throughout the attack, the suspects used anti-gay epithets.

There is also a link between the rise in anti-gay sentiment fueled by the religious right and the rise in anti-gay hate crimes. In cities across the country where there are anti-gay ballot initiatives, it has been shown that hate crimes increase.

Anti-gay violence is the third highest category of hate crimes, as reported by the FBI. According to the FBI, anti-gay hate crimes accounted for 11.6 percent of all hate crimes statistics collected in 1996, up from 8.9 percent in 1991.

Despite that federal statistic, Pennsylvania - which does have hate crimes legislation -- is one of the 18 states that specifically excludes sexual orientation from the list of groups protected by hate crime legislation.

On a federal level, only two hate crimes laws include sexual orientation: the Hate Crime Statistics Act, which calls for state and local authorities to report all hate crimes to the FBI; and the Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act, which provides for tougher sentencing when it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was a hate crime. This increases the actual time served by one-third, but since it is a federal statute the law is only applicable when the offense occurs on federal property.

When I first heard of hate crimes, I also took the stance that a crime is a crime and why should all this social handholding be a part of it? But as a court reporter for this newspaper, I got the chance to see how important the sentencing process is, and both the leeway and limitations a judge is given dependent upon the case. Sometimes, the prosecution can't prove all of their case and despite knowing the defendant is guilty, the charges are lessened to get a guilty plea rather than risk losing a case outright. The more strict sentencing guidelines that are on the books, the better the chance that defendants will serve longer, or even just their full, sentences.

Last November, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., introduced the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1998. President Clinton has also endorsed this bill as part of an initiative against hate crimes. The legislation would give the Justice Department the ability to prosecute hate crimes regardless of jurisdictional requirements for existing crimes. The current Congress hasn't voted upon the bill. President Clinton Saturday said it was not too late for Congress to pass this measure before they adjourned.

I urge Congressman Kanjorski (and all other local legislators) to support this important legislation.