We need to expand protection against hate crimes in the United States.
The House of Representatives has already passed the Matthew Shepard Act, named for the 21-year-old man who was tortured and beaten to death in an act of anti-gay violence in Wyoming in 1998. Shepard became a national and international symbol of the often-virulent hatred that gay people still face.
The Matthew Shepard Act would include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability as protected categories of people and would allow the federal government to prosecute hate crimes in cases where state and local governments do not take action.
Since 1969, the United States has had a hate crimes law that provided funding to state and local authorities to prosecute crimes motivated by the victim’s perceived or actual race, color, religion and national origin.
It makes sense to expand such protection to other groups who are also being victimized.
Protection of minority groups is the test of a democracy. Women, disabled people, and gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals are all still too often attacked simply for who they are. In 2007, there were 1,265 hate crimes against gays and lesbians, up 6 percent from the year before, according to the FBI.
The federal government should be empowered to protect their right to live in safety in the diverse United States of the 21st century.
But as the U.S. Senate debates the issue, Republican conservatives have launched another one of their barrages of dishonest rhetoric.
Nicknaming the bill the Pedophile Protection Act, they wrongly argue that pedophilia is a sexual orientation and are trying to evoke the old notion that homosexuals are pedophiles who recruit young boys to increase their numbers.
This is foolish and ugly.
Foolish, because acts of pedophilia are already crimes. There is nothing in the language of the Matthew Shepard Act that says this law is supposed to protect such criminals.
Ugly, because they fuel a false stereotype. Study after study has shown that most men who commit sexual assault against children and adults are living with a woman at home.
This low campaign obscures the real toll that hate crimes can take.
One Matthew Shepard should have been enough.
Starita Smith is a doctoral student and instructor in sociology at the University of North Texas in Denton. She is also an award-winning journalist formerly with the Austin American-Statesman and The Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.