I'm not one to believe that legislation is a be-all and end-all solution to the troubles that plague us, but it can be a necessary step in order to achieve equality in spirit. Hate crime laws exist because assumed and cultural prejudices, the need of certain institutions (some religions, or government) to manufacture a common enemy, and human nature's fundamental impulse to fear and revile what we don't understand all ensure that equality in its purest principle cannot be simply assumed and left to chance. Equality must be safeguarded with particular care to protect the marginalized, and environments must be created so that the machinations that drive discrimination can be confronted and defused over the long term.
Such is the Matthew Shepard Act, which was proposed as H.R. 1592 to add sexual orientation, gender identity and disability to the protected classes under hate crime law, as well as to remove some restrictive barriers to placing hate crimes charges, and adding crimes against transgender people to those being statistically tracked.
Although nothing is ever perfect, we can't allow our cynicism to keep us from seeing the potential ramifications of legislation like this.
In the absence of hate crimes legislation, it is not uncommon for people who commit acts of violence against homosexual or transgender people to be able to use panic defenses to barter their charges down to negligible complaints. In the case of murder, often to manslaughter or mischief. The really sad thing is this happens so commonly that I really don't know if the latter is an exaggeration; certainly acquittal is not uncommon. While hate crimes legislation doesn't always prevent panic strategies from working, it does provide a tool to defuse them. Panic strategies often assert that "they were asking for it," while hate crime designation reminds us that no one should deserve violence simply because of who they are.
The law doesn't help the dead, of course, but it does help survivors, or the living left behind, find closure, find a sense of justice, and re-assert the value of life. More than that, it prevents matters from being trivialized, sending the signal that crimes against GLBT persons are not acceptable, and that GLBT victims have no less value in our society than anybody else. The effect of this is not immediate, but it does indeed grow with time.
The concept of hate speech -- the more extreme potential application of hate crimes legislation -- is slightly more controversial, but even in that, we can see why something needs to be done, and how legislation can ultimately lead to something more closely resembling equality. I wrote a few months ago about a political candidate's declaration before a gathering of high school students in Sudbury Ontario that he felt that "homosexuals should be executed."
"My whole reason for running is the Bible and the Bible couldn't be more clear on that point." -- David Popescu
Canada does have sexual orientation included in the categories covered under hate crimes law (gender identity isn't, but that's a rant for another day), and the law didn't stop the comment from being made, of course. Neither did the school Principal, nor the other candidates participating in the forum, for that matter. What hate crime law does is provide a means of confronting the speech and the attitudes that drive it. It provides a means to come into that discussion and establishes that the hate simply isn't acceptable -- for example, for the sake of closure for the perhaps closeted students that had to sit through that speech and face the chilling realization of just how dangerous it can sometimes be to be Out.
I'm a strong believer in cultures of acceptance. When an environment is made welcoming, when intolerance is not tolerated, then gradually, the closeted moderates and eventually even some of the begrudging right-wing will gradually let go of the prejudices and "squick-factor" that they cling to, and start to welcome people who would otherwise be continually challenged simply because of who they are -- or at least to see them with empathy, as humans -- which in itself becomes a change of mindset. As legislation, hate crimes law is only as good as the authorities who make use of it and enforce it. As a social tool, however, it goes much further to signal that the social climate is changing and that we as a people too must change.
One cannot underestimate this. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example, does not specifically advocate violence, and yet it has been one of the largest sources of inspiration of genocide in history, through the creation of the culture of hate. We cannot change the acts of violence that occur, but we can change the attitudes and the boldness that drive them. This much, legislation (when properly enforced) can effect over time.
The role of hate crimes legislation in furthering a cause is sometimes invisible, yet crucial. As people realize that something CAN be done about hatred and violence if directed at them (and later, that something WILL be done), they become emboldened to be Out, to be vocal and to become active. Whether the fear is dismantled from real protection or an idea of protection, it loses its power over people nonetheless, and communities grow in numbers, in courage and in activity, thus expanding the culture of acceptance exponentially.
While the Matthew Shepard Act will focus primarily on established crimes as motivated by bias, it will still give the authorities the ability to act when no other specific law has been violated, but there is a clear need to act. It will also provide impetus to see cases through to their conclusion, rather than fall by the wayside for lack of concern. These have been serious roadblocks to people seeking resolution in the past.
And with time, it works. About that Canadian hate speech law? Society has been gradually (sometimes begrudgingly) accepting gay couples to the point that the Conservative government grumblingly voted down a revisitation of same-sex marriage. The shift toward tolerance (though not complete) has so threatened the extreme factions that they've seen fit for far-right journalists, the Roman Catholic Church, the Conservative Government, Protestant Fundamentalists and white supremacists to informally ally -- of course, provided the banners everybody flies are "free speech" and "morality."
Will the Matthew Shepard Act ban the Bible? Of course not. But if there is some acknowledgement now that Leviticus 20:13 has to be reassessed in the context of modern law, times, and respect for life, so too will the remainder of anti-gay sentiment eventually be re-examined to better fit the understanding of a Creator's love, and a changing society -- just as it has had to be re-examined in other contexts.
Such is the real and vital result of legislation, however glacial the change may sometimes seem.