In the past month alone, we have seen gay marriage legalized in Vermont in an historic vote of the legislature overriding the governor's veto, and in Ohio through a decision of the Supreme Court. Just today, the New Hampshire senate passed a bill that would guarantee civil marriages to gay couples, and will send their version back to the House, where a similar bill has already passed. Others may be close behind. However, the controversial Proposition 8, which passed narrowly in California, would retroactively nullify gay marriages already registered in the state. The marriage ban has been challenged in court - oral arguments were heard March 5th - and the decision is still pending.
In a precedent-setting recognition of gender plurality, a jury soundly rejected hatred as a defense for hate crimes. The man who killed Angie Zapata, a young transgender woman, was sentenced to life in prison under a new Colorado hate crimes statute. While the tragedy of her death remains with all of us, it helps to know that her family was able to obtain some bit of justice. It is my hope and belief that this verdict represents a move toward a system of justice that no longer unquestioningly protects or attempts to justify the actions of those who lash out in hate, under any pretext.
JUST TODAY: The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the "Matthew Shepard Act," by a vote of 249 to 175, and will now pass it on to the Senate.
"The LLEHCPA will authorize the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute certain bias-motivated crimes based on the victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Currently, the federal government can only investigate hate crimes motivated by the victim's race, color, religion, and national origin. It will also provide local authorities with more resources to combat hate crimes and give the federal government jurisdiction over prosecuting hate crimes in states where the current law is inadequate."
Unfortunately, there are still those who do not believe others who may be different from them should have the same rights and privileges. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found a record number of active hate groups - 928, up from 888 in 2007 - in its 2008 annual report. It attributes this rise in activity to "the national immigration debate...the worsening recession, and Barack Obama's successful campaign to become the nation's first black president." Racial issues, as always, were at the forefront of hate group activity. The SPLC states:
"A key 2008 hate group trend was the increasing militancy of the extremist fringe of the Hebrew Israelite movement, whose adherents believe that Jews are creatures of the devil and that whites deserve death or slavery. These radical black supremacists have no love for Barack Obama, calling him a "house n*****" and a puppet of Israel. They preach to inner-city blacks that evil Jews are solely responsible for the recession. The rhetoric of white-skinned hate group leaders in 2008 was equally alarming. Last September, for example the cover of National Socialist magazine depicted then-presidential nominee Barack Obama in the crosshairs of a scope, with the headline "Kill This N*****?"
It is a sad reality that the United States has been home to some of the most brutal of hate-based propaganda in many categories, including gender, sexuality and gender identity, race, and immigrant status, among others. The struggle to de-legitimize such hate-based propaganda continues. But there is an uphill trend. We need to keep talking about it. We need to keep acting on what we know is right. And legislation and court decisions in favor of human and civil rights certainly can't hurt.
* I'm sure there is many a lively debate to be had about the use of the "N" word in journalism. It is my personal choice never to use it, though it is spelled out in the SPLC source material.
UPDATE: The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act has been introduced to the Senate as S. 909 (Hate Crimes Prevention Act).