Hate Crimes Protections Historical Overview

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Overview: Task Force’s long history of working to secure hate crimes protections for LGBT people

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Task Force creates first-ever LGBT anti-violence project

In 1982, the then-National Gay Task Force launched our movement’s first-ever national anti-violence organizing project. Under the leadership of Kevin Berrill, the Anti-Violence Project breached the wall of official hostile silence and malevolent neglect of bias-motivated attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Berrill articulated a simple goal: to mobilize community and political indignation about hate crimes and, by so doing, finally end the long-ignored epidemic of anti-LGBT violence. Berrill and his colleagues in the LGBT anti-violence movement succeeded in bringing to our community and the broader public the critical issue of bias violence. This was accomplished through:

  • Conducting groundbreaking research to document annually the extent of hate crimes targeting LGBT people.
  • Establishing local organizations to care for LGBT victims of hate crimes and advocate for responsive anti-violence policies at the local and state levels.
  • Educating the public through LGBT community media and mainstream media outlets.
  • Building strong and enduring relationships with organizations that share a common interest in reducing bias crimes.
  • Congressional hearings on anti-LGBT violence.
  • Passage of state and federal laws that recognize LGBT vulnerability to crimes motivated by anti-LGBT hate and prejudice.

Power in numbers

Throughout the 1980s, Berrill developed and deployed a survey instrument to collect data from LGBT people to measure and describe the extent of anti-LGBT violence and victimization. The first survey results, released in a report that the Task Force published in 1984, showed that 94 percent of respondents had been victims of some form of violence, from verbal abuse to assault by fists and/or weapons. Even worse, 20 percent reported having been victimized by police officers. Building on a survey sample of just over 2,000 LGBT people from only six cities, the annual reports became the cornerstone of the Task Force project to advocate for policy changes at the federal level.

At a dramatic congressional hearing on Oct. 9, 1986, LGBT social scientists and political leaders joined forces with victims of LGBT-bashings to bring vivid testimony about the problem of hate violence and the government’s shameful lack of interest. Berrill accused the Department of Justice of having both acknowledged that anti-LGBT violence was a problem and turned away from taking any effective action to address it. U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chair of the Judiciary Committee’s Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said, “Local law enforcement responses to anti-gay violence have been terrible. Some areas are trying to do a better job than others. Most areas, however, appear to treat the issue as insignificant or somebody else’s problem.”

Hate crimes measure makes history

Conyers remained a staunch ally of the Task Force and the anti-violence movement and in 1988 introduced the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, which required the Department of Justice to collect and publish statistics about crimes motivated by hatred based on race, religion, ethnic origin and sexual orientation. President George H. W. Bush signed the bill into law on April 23, 1990, making it the first federal statute in our country’s history that named and recognized lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Berrill’s work leading the LGBT anti-violence movement culminated in enactment of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act. Better and more thorough recordkeeping ensures that we know much more about LGBT bashing and holds federal law enforcement agencies accountable and responsible for data about hate crimes.

Conflict at Camp Sister Spirit

President George H. W. Bush lost the White House to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992. With the new Democratic president in power, access by LGBT community advocates to federal decisionmakers grew. The Task Force became deeply involved in resolving a community-based conflict concerning a lesbian-owned camp in Ovett, Miss., in 1993. Camp Sister Spirit and its owners were under siege by their neighbors and townspeople in rural Mississippi and they turned to the Task Force for help. Task Force leader Peri Jude Radecic dispatched staff to Mississippi to aid the women and she led delegations to the Department of Justice under then-Attorney General Janet Reno to press for federal mediation and intervention in the crisis. Camp Sister Spirit was protected and defended from further attacks, the community conflict was resolved and Reno’s Department of Justice became an ally to LGBT people, especially concerning acts of intimidation and violence directed against us.

Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passes

In 1994, a federal law passed that permitted harsher sentences for persons convicted of violent crimes in which a victim is targeted due to race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation if the crime was already considered a federal crime (such as if it took place on National Park land). The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was supported by lobbying and organizing by Task Force staffers Martin Hiraga and Tanya Domi. This and other such “sentencing enhancement” laws provoke controversy among criminal justice reform advocates and prison reform advocates who object to lengthier prison terms on the grounds that our criminal justice system is generally biased against poor people, people of color and immigrants and that prisons fail to provide substantive rehabilitative programs for the incarcerated.

Gaps remain

A wave of vicious hate crimes against LGBT people during the mid-1990s inspired renewed interest in federal hate crimes provisions that wo uld close a gap in investigation and prosecution. Still missing today from federal laws mandating the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes are LGBT people. In other words, the FBI counts our bruised and dead bodies but doesn’t find out how we became bruised or dead, nor does it bring the alleged perpetrators to justice. This gap in federal attention to anti-LGBT bashings is especially important in cases where local law enforcement officials ignore aspects of violent crimes that indicate that bias against LGBT people was a motivating factor.

A string of murders of LGBT people in the 1990s accompanied statewide electoral campaigns on ballot questions relating to LGBT people, such as nondiscrimination laws and domestic partner and marriage laws. The confluence of the ballot campaigns, which were characterized by vitriolic and defamatory anti-LGBT propaganda, prompted the Task Force to again seek intervention by Attorney General Reno. In a three-page letter dated December 13, 1995, Task Force Executive Director Melinda Paras called on Reno to lend federal assistance in investigating and preventing homophobic homicides. But Reno and federal agencies needed a federal mandate for investigation and prosecution in hate-motivated violent crimes in order to intervene as Paras had requested.

In July 1996, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act was reauthorized at the urging of the Task Force in the midst of a shocking string of arsons of Southern black churches. A pipe bomb covered with nails exploded in a crowded Atlanta gay bar in February 1997, emphasizing the need for federal action on hate crimes and right-wing hate activity. This was the fourth bombing in Atlanta in seven months and was similar to bombings at an Atlanta abortion clinic and at the Olympic Games, held in Atlanta in summer 1996. Again, the Task Force noted the increasing anti-LGBT rhetoric in campaigns and connected that to rising violence against our community.

Finally, on June 8, 1997, President Bill Clinton spoke out against hate crimes that targeted victims based on skin color, religion, ethnicity, gender, physical ability and sexual orientation. Clinton announced that he would convene a special White House Summit on Hate Crimes on November 10, 1997. Task Force Executive Director Kerry Lobel launched a nine-city tour through heartland America in summer 1997 to hear stories of hate violence perpetrated against LGBT people and to gather hundreds of signatures on petitions urging the president to take action against hate violence. Nearly 1,000 signatures were presented at the White House Summit on Hate Crimes, which resulted in the introduction of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a bill that adds sexual orientation, gender and disability to existing federal hate crimes law.

The Task Force stepped up its advocacy for state-level hate crimes laws when it sponsored a nationwide campaign called Equality Begins at Home in March 1999. More than 250 separate events in the 50 state capitals in the U.S. turned public attention to hate crimes and discrimination against LGBT people. Still, by Oct. 11, 1999, only one state, Missouri, had enacted hate crimes legislation, while nearly two dozen had rejected such bills, including the state of Wyoming, where Matthew Shepard had been murdered one year before.

Despite being passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act (now called the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act) was never passed by both chambers in the same congressional session. While the federal hate crimes bill stalled out in the Republican-led Congress, our political movement evolved and grew in its understanding of the need to specifically include transgender people in the bill. Although some colleagues maintained that the phrase “actual or perceived… gender, sexual orientation” could be interpreted to include transgender people, the frequency and severity of bias-motivated crimes against transgender people and the unwillingness of law enforcement agencies to take these attacks seriously brought urgency to the need for specific inclusion of transgender people in hate crimes laws.

Task Force pushes forward on transgender-inclusive bill

By 2001, the Task Force began to lobby other LGBT groups and organizations in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights hate crimes coalition to educate them about the inadequate original language. Task Force staffer Lisa Mottet wrote legal memos about why the phrase “actual or perceived… gender, sexual orientation” did not ensure that hate crimes against transgender people would be covered in the bill. With persistent pressure from the Task Force, language in committee reports and in floor statements by the Senate sponsor Sen. Gordon Smith began to acknowledge transgender people.

The Task Force received an offer from some members of Congress to include in the bill’s legislative history a specific reference to crimes against transgender people. But that would still leave transgender people out of the bill’s language and vulnerable, so the Task Force pushed on for a change in the actual language of the bill. Working with the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Organization for Women, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Pride at Work and Family Pride, and Members of Congress Barney Frank (D-Mass.), John Conyers, and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the Task Force finally secured a 2005 House version of the bill that was specifically trans-inclusive. The trans-inclusive House bill passed 223 to 199 in September 2005. With broad support, including 30 Republican House members, the larger chamber proved that trans-inclusive language is politically viable. Both the House and Senate 2007 versions of the bill were trans-inclusive.

President signs LGBT-inclusive hate crimes legislation into law

Oct. 28, 2009, President Obama signed LGBT-inclusive hate crimes protections into law, as part of the Department of Defense (DOD) authorization bill. Earlier that summer, the Task Force had activated its membership to urge for a death penalty provision to be struck from the bill, which it was before its passage. Click here to see what Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey had to say.