Thinking about Hate Crimes

By Susan Raffo


Like many others, I attended a vigil in my hometown to honor Matthew Shepard. This vigil was a perfect example of the organizing power contained within the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender (GLBT) community. Within three days, a site had been selected, a full outdoor sound system found, a series of speakers scheduled, and a massive phone and email notification system initiated. When it was raining heavily a few hours before the vigil, an alternative site--a large Episcopalian church nearby--was found and the entire vigil moved inside. By 7:30 PM the church was standing room only and there were over 100 people outside. Candles had been donated by the Target stores and the Gay Men’s Chorus had organized to sing. The evening was an astounding and moving piece of community organizing.

I got there early and sat where I could watch people enter. Some entered the church with visible grief, their body movements solemn and their eyes downcast Others walked in, looked for familiar faces and called with pleasure to friends and colleagues, their laughter as present as the murmur of hushed voices. Once the program began, the speakers moved from focusing specifically on Matthew Shepard and the cause of anti-gay violence to discussing the upcoming election and its importance to the GLBT community. Throughout the evening, I could see and hear people crying, the soft sounds of their weeping creating a back beat to the voices speaking from the pulpit.

The vigil was a powerful event and it manifest a force that is still growing, a force determined to instill legislation that recognizes hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation.

But I have to admit that, along with my grief at the death of Matthew Shepard and my heightened awareness of the forces of hate gathered against the bodies of GLBT people, I also felt a sadness not connected to these things. One of the early speakers that evening, a woman who works as an anti-violence coordinator for a local agency, stated that violence on the basis of sexual orientation or gender expression is the third largest form of hate crime in the United States, totaling 11 percent of all recorded hate crimes. This comment stopped me and fed a growing discomfort.

I took part in an evening of reflection, an evening in which the existence of hate crimes was loudly and repeatedly denounced, and only briefly was mention made of those who experience an even greater likelihood of being the victims of hate crimes than GLBT people: immigrants and people of color. We know that after Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, the same college students attacked two Latinos and pistol whipped them with the same gun they used on Matthew.

For the perpetrators, the connection between Matthew and the bodies of the two Latino men was direct and understood. But for my community, the community who gathered to denounce the death of a young man we perceive to be one of our own, that connection seemed to be mostly lost.

My sadness is about an act of imagination. It’s about what happens when, in the wildness of grief, we are called to imagine our own and to feel protective of them.

It is not right that, during the vigil, an entire evening could be spent discussing the victims of hate crimes and only mention hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation. It’s not right that when, as a group we shouted, "we will not tolerate these crimes," we were only verbally referring to crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and, for some, gender expression. We should not be able to easily distinguish between different types of hate crimes. We should not be able to separate one form from another, saying homophobia without saying racism or anti-immigrant, saying Matthew Shepard without saying James Byrd. Indeed, often the hate crimes themselves are not distinguishable. It would be impossible to say, when a gay person of color is attacked or a lesbian--both white and of color--is attacked, that the motivation for that crime is only the victim’s sexual orientation. Race and sex must be equally involved and, for all we know, might be the motivating factor that caused the perpetrator to strike out.

There is no doubt in my mind that we must have laws that recognize hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender expression. These laws are desperately needed and the flare-up of violence directed at GLBT people in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s death is further evidence of this. But this is only one part of the political and emotional moment in which we are sitting. A primary strategy of the right wing has been to put a wedge between GLBT civil rights movements and the civil rights movements of other groups, most specifically, the Right has focused on African-American civil rights groups and churches.

We cannot afford to contribute to this imagined chasm. It is not more painful or more horrible to be beaten or murdered due to our sexual orientation than it is to be the victim of violence on the basis of our race or nationality or for any other reason. Each of these crimes is designed to silence more than the individual being attacked: hate crimes intend to frighten into silence a whole community. As Matthew Shepard’s attackers demonstrated by their actions: hate is hate and the fact that Matthew died while the Latino men did not could well be about nothing more than the fact that Matthew was alone and Matthew was attacked first.

We have the opportunity to show the forces of hate in this country that we respond at moments like this one with the awareness of our connection to others who experience hate. There are many of us who are at risk of being victimized because of who we are and not all of that "us" are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. When we close our eyes and imagine the bodies of those who, in our grief, we feel moved to protect, let many people dwell in our hearts. When in our communities, we hear of those who are beaten or murdered because of their color or because they were not born in this country, let us remember Matthew and feel moved to speak out, using the power of our organizing force to work against all hate crimes, knowing that hatred must be confronted no matter what form it takes or what person is under attack.