Thursday's historic passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is cause for celebration. The first federal legislation to provide inclusive protections for the GLBTQ community, this hate crimes bill will extend significant protections to many Americans.
Yes, we absolutely must celebrate this victory. It tells all our citizens, and the world, who we are, what we stand for - and what we won't stand for.
But we cannot think we're done. This is, in fact, just the beginning.
Gays in this country are increasingly becoming victims of violent, and deadly hate crimes. New York City, certainly more "gay-friendly" than many towns and cities across America, has been host to several brutal beatings this year. Among other incidents, New Yorkers have suffered beatings on a tony Upper East Side street, outside a Hell's Kitchen neighborhood restaurant, and the latest, the vicious beating of forty-nine year-old Jack Price - caught on tape - in blue-collar Queens.
Kicked and beaten by two young men less than half his age, Price had to be put into a medically-induced coma. One of the men arrested in the attack claimed not to be homophobic, yet proudly displayed for the media's cameras his (misquoted) Leviticus 18:22 tattoo: "You shall not lie with a male as one does with a woman. It is an abomination."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee this summer that there has been "nearly one hate crime for every hour of every day over the span of a decade," since 1998 - the year Matthew Shepard was murdered. It's been over four thousand days since Shepard's death. Over ninety-six thousand hours. Do the math. Yes, it's taken that long - and that many hate crime incidents - for the U.S. Congress to pass legislation offering protection to the GLBTQ community against crimes of hate.
But America is not alone in its treatment of GLBTQs. Scotland Yard reports an eighteen percent rise in homophobic hate crimes in London - almost 1200 incidents, more than three a day - over the past twelve months. Italy has seen an eleven percent increase in gay-related hate crimes as well. But the worst news comes out of Iraq, where organized militias are roaming the streets and gunning down suspected homosexuals, and Iran, where the government has hanged adults and juveniles - just for being gay.
Homophobic hate crimes are on the rise, and for every hate crime that makes the statistics, how many go unreported? Obviously, there are few numbers available, but one study out of Ireland this year found that sixty-four percent of homophobic hate crimes are not reported to police. A 2007 study by Human Rights First determined that "[London] police themselves estimate that some 90 percent of homophobic hate crimes go unreported."
Every hate crime - reported or not, affects the larger community. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker says that a hate crime,
"...is really two crimes - one against the individual and another against the group to which he belongs. By that definition, [Matthew] Shepard's murder may be viewed as a terrorist act against all gays, who would have felt more fearful as a result."
And to those, like Rep. Steve King (D-IA) who tried to have the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill name changed to the "Local Law Enforcement Thought Crimes Prevention Act of 2009," we can now, proudly, say, America thinks you're wrong, and the full weight of U.S. law says so.
Yes, Thursday's passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is cause for celebration. But it will also be a rallying cry - to those like Rep. King, and to those like the American Family Association, whose latest call to action offered this attack:
"In its never-ending quest to shred America's Judeo-Christian value system, the left is planning to hurriedly push through a "thought crimes" bill.
"So-called "hate crimes" laws are really laws that criminalize thought, because they punish an individual not for what he did but for what he thought. Politically incorrect thoughts about homosexual behavior will result in enhanced criminal sanctions under this law.
"Everywhere hate crimes laws have gone into effect, they have been quickly used to intimidate, silence and punish people of faith who express deeply held religious objections to the normalization of homosexuality."
We can't assume the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act will put an end to hate crimes. They're already on the rise. What we need to do is work to ensure more victims of hate crimes report them, work to support those who become victims, and work to find and extinguish the source of what motivates those to commit these crimes in the first place.
Let's use this hard-fought success to rally our troops and ensure the momentum we've built this year doesn't end with the hate crimes bill. Let's redouble our efforts to see repeal of DADT and DOMA, and enactment of ENDA.
There are only two months left in the year. There is a crisis confronting the GLBTQ community. Let's address it, before it's too late.