The national outcry in the aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepherd, an openly gay Wyoming college student who was beaten by two other men, tied to a fence and left in the cold to die, may finally be bearing fruit. Thanks to the efforts of U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit), a long-stalled proposal that brings sexual orientation under the scope of current hate crime law has finally cleared the U.S. House of Representatives. Previously, Republicans had been successful in keeping sexual preference exempt from federal hate crime statutes. Conyers, a longtime proponent of the bill, should be applauded not only for his dedication, but also for bringing 30 Republicans on board.
Should the Senate follow suit – which is likely because it passed a nearly identical proposal last year – this landmark provision will bring gays and lesbians one step closer to achieving parity under law. Congress will have demonstrated a level of bipartisan support rarely seen before in deliberations over hot-button cultural issues like sexual orientation.
The House has long stalled on the provision, and Conyers took special care in presenting it as an amendment to the Children’s Safety Act, a popular bill that sets new guidelines for monitoring sex offenders. However, had it been presented independently, it is unclear whether it would have received the same level of support. Nonetheless, that 30 Republicans crossed party lines is an encouraging sign that members of both parties are acknowledging the importance of equal protection.
According to a 2003 FBI report, sexual orientation-related hate crimes occur almost as frequently as similar crimes related to a victim’s religion or ethnicity. Current law only provides federal assistance to state and local authorities for prosecuting crimes motivated by a victim’s race, religion or ethnicity. Conyers’s amendment would add sexual orientation, gender and disability to this list, helping ensure that sexual preference-related crimes won’t go ignored at the community level. Gays and lesbians are just as susceptible to violent hate crimes as other minorities, and in the spirit of the 14th Amendment, they should be provided the same legal protections.
This hate crime legislation is a promising start toward reducing the great inequalities that homosexuals face under the law, but more must be done. Same-sex marriage is only permitted in a handful of cities and states, and gays and lesbians are still struggling for equal treatment in adoption and custody cases. As the civil rights movement demonstrates, obtaining equal rights is a long and arduous process, and in the case of gays and lesbians, most progress has thus far been achieved through the judicial system. But the courts cannot be the only method of bringing about change, and Congress must continue to pass similar legislation to provide gays and lesbians with the same rights afforded the rest of the country.