Editors' note: Laura A. Belmonte, Ph.D., is the Vice President and Co-Founder of The Equality Network, an organization dedicated to LGBT equality in Oklahoma.
In October 2007, Darrell Lynn Madden kidnapped, tortured, and murdered Steven Domer, a 62 year-old Oklahoma City gay man, whom Madden targeted as part of an initiation rite of the Aryan Brotherhood. In order to secure a "patch," the white supremacist group demands that its members commit an act of violence against an African American, Jew, homosexual, or any other person declared "an enemy." Although local law enforcement officials believed that anti-gay bias was a motivating factor in Domer's murder, they could not prosecute Madden under the state hate crimes law because Oklahoma is one of only 17 states whose hate crimes statute does not protect LGBT citizens.
Not that the Oklahoma State Senate seems to care. Last week, by a 39-6 vote, they voted to obstruct the LGBT-inclusive provisions of the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Protection Act. Unfortunately, this sort of political gay-bashing is a staple in the kabuki theater that passes for the Oklahoma legislature. Undeterred by pesky obstacles like the U.S. Constitution, facts, or common decency, opportunistic politicians regularly use "God, guns, and gays" to score points with the far right.
In the meantime, Oklahoma has record-high unemployment, a crumbling infrastructure, tragically low rankings on nearly every public health index, and more incarcerated women per capita than any place on Earth. But I digress.
Back to hate crimes. Last October, after more than a decade of concerted and impassioned advocacy, the U.S. Congress adopted the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Protection Act. The long-awaited and much-needed law added gender, disability, and actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity to the categories protected under federal hate crimes law. It created mechanisms for local and state officials to solicit federal assistance in the prosecution of hate crimes. It expressly defined hate crimes as acts of physical violence targeting specific communities, not expressions of speech, no matter how hate-filled such speech might be.
Apparently, these nuances were beyond the grasp of Oklahoma State Senator Steve Russell, a retired Army Lt. Colonel elected in 2008. Despite twenty-plus years spent defending freedom and democracy all over the world, Russell is working to deny basic liberties to LGBT Oklahomans.
Last November, Senator Russell announced that he would be introducing a bill to prevent Oklahoma from enforcing the LBGT-inclusive provisions of the newly amended federal hate crimes law. He asserted, "The federal government should not be creating a special class of people, and that is just what they did when they passed and signed this bill." He warned that the law --its explicit protections for freedom of speech notwithstanding -- would result in the prosecution of ministers who preach against homosexuality. Finally, displaying his limited knowledge of human sexuality, he declared, "Sexual orientation is a very vague word that could be extended to extremes like necrophilia."
As promised, the senator introduced SB2165 in January 2010. In mid-February, the Oklahoma Senate Judiciary Committee elected not to pass the bill out of committee. Although the move shocked Oklahoma-based civil rights advocates, we knew better than to think the measure was truly dead.
Sadly, those suspicions were realized. Using a slick parliamentary maneuver, Senator Russell introduced an amendment to SB 1965, an innocuous bill calling for the creation of a task force to study activities at Oklahoma secondary schools -- a bill that, of course, no human rights organizations were monitoring because of its apparently benign nature. Russell's amendment first deleted the language of the original SB 1965 and then substituted the text of the "dead" SB 2165. Presto change-o, one overwhelming vote for passage of Russell's heinous bill coming up. One can only wonder how many of the 39 senators who supported Russell's amendment actually knew they were voting to declare open season on LGBT Oklahomans instead of exploring whether state high schools have Latin Clubs.
The new and not-improved version of SB 1965 now heads to the Oklahoma House of Representatives for a floor vote. TEN - The Equality Network, the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and many other dedicated individuals and organizations will be working to kill this monstrosity. You can help by publicizing the blatantly discriminatory and unconstitutional Russell bill and by urging Oklahoma citizens to contact their House of Representatives to denounce this effort to deny LGBT people equal protection under federal law. You can also encourage people to participate in LGBT Lobby Day at the Oklahoma state capitol on March 31st.
As hard as being on the frontlines of the battle for LGBT equality often is, the Oklahoma we love is a place of tolerance, compassion, and reason. And until we rescue our state from the injustices meted out by the misguided, we will work to ensure that the liberties and rights accorded all U.S. citizens do not cease to exist once one crosses the Oklahoma state line.