The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) recently released its annual report on violence against gays, bisexuals, and transgender people. The group reports a 4% increase in anti-GLBT incidents, totaling 1,792. A press statement about the report issued by the Michigan-based Triangle Foundation declared that there has been a “toxic climate” against gays in the last year. The report itself addresses the Right’s “open warfare against all that they hold in contempt, including and especially the LGBT community.”
With language like this, it’s easy to believe that queers are in a state of siege, surrounded by hatred, that utterly unquantifiable emotion. But we ought to stop and think carefully about this concept of hate and where it takes us. Reports like this one seem to only detail the facts about incidents of violence. But the truth is that the apparently simple concept of hate violence/crimes (the idea that some crimes are motivated by hatred towards specific groups) in fact leads directly to hate crime legislation which in turn has insidious effects on the justice system.
To designate a crime as one motivated by hate means to implicitly ask that the penalty be substantially higher. Penalty enhancement leads to absurdly greater levels of punishment and even the death penalty. My own report on the Daniel Fetty case shows how even the possibility that a crime was “hateful” can be used to bring the death penalty to the table even when the legislation is not in place. And surely state-sponsored murder is among the most violent acts in society.
Moreover, “hate” is as unstable and illogical a legal concept as it is an emotion. Determining what counts as an act of violence against GLBTQs or a “hate crime” produces results that are often bizarre and at times even laughable.
One example of the former is this “case narrative” from the NCAVP report, which I quote in its entirety: “A 19 year-old man was bludgeoned to death with a pipe while standing on a corner in Queens(New York).” I see the horrific crime, but not why it’s included in a report about anti-gay violence. And there are laws on the books to punish murder. In another instance, a bar owner was found asphyxiated inside his establishment in Binghamton, New York. What are we to note here, besides the possibility that the victim was gay? And why are we not content to find the murderer and simply prosecute him or her for murder?
A Chicago incident from April 2004 sheds a different light on “hate crimes.” Mike Banko and Jeffrey Durbin reported being attacked by a group that included a woman who threatened them with a baseball bat and allegedly screamed that she would “take care of the faggots.” The investigation of the incident as a possible hate crime was dropped when the woman, Myrna Vazquez, turned out to be a lesbian; police then decided that the altercation resulted from “road rage.” The quick shift in this case, from hate to no hate, only shows how ludicrous and unreliable hate can be as a legal concept. Even if we took “hate” seriously: was it determined that a lesbian could simply not hate gay men because of her own identity? What if either man had called Vazquez a dyke? Would that be no less hateful? Would the two men have been punished for “hateful speech,” but only if they had been straight, just as Vazquez was to be punished for calling them faggots? Does threatening someone with a bat not constitute enough of a crime? Are we now to police thought and speech as well?
How do we measure hate? How do we decide what counts as a homophobic crime? And who ever committed a crime of violence out of love? None of these questions are answered by the incessant call on the part of anti-violence groups and “victim advocates” to record and register hate. The resulting rise in hate crimes legislation means a further curtailment of civil liberties. Post 9/11, we are faced with increased surveillance of our actions and speech. Tabulating and recording supposedly homophobic “hate” means that we LGBTQs are actually asking for an increase in the patrolling of thought and speech. Far from providing justice to all, laws based on “hate” confer special status to a few whose suffering is deemed worse than that of others. The concept of hate crimes and hate crime legislation can never be part of a progressive agenda for social justice. We need to get rid of both.