LGBTQ Communities and Hate Crimes Essay

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Hate crimes are threats or acts of violence motivated by animus against a specific social group, targeting members of that group. Laws addressing hate crimes do not create new crimes; rather, they provide enhanced penalties for perpetrators of traditional crimes against persons and property whose motivation includes enmity or bias against a group of individuals determined to be in need of additional protection. This essay will briefly review the history of hate crimes legislation in the United States, the work of advocacy groups working for greater protections for LGBTQ communities, and arguments for and against the enhancement of penalties for perpetrators of hate crimes.

The acronym LGBTQ is used to reflect the diversity of the nonheterosexual community; it generally stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning. During the last decade, a number of organizations have been collecting data concerning incidents of hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ communities. According to Federal Bureau of Investigation crime statistics for 2011, hate crimes against LGBTQ communities appear to be increasing. Transgender individuals (persons who identify with or express a gender identity different from the one assigned at birth) are at the highest risk. Similarly, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) has reported, based on information collected from 16 states, that the highest annual number of murders of LGBTQ individuals ever recorded occurred in 2011.

Prior to the passage of hate crime laws, some federal laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibited violence motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin. In 1969, Congress passed hate crimes legislation covering crimes motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin, when the victim is engaging in a federally protected activity such as voting or attending school.

In 1978, California passed the first statute carrying an enhanced penalty for a crime motivated by hate against members of specific protected groups. Other states followed suit, expanding the definitions of protected groups to include, among others, sexual orientation and gender identity. As of 2013, 13 states and the District of Columbia prohibit hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and 31 states prohibit hate crimes based on sexual orientation. Fourteen states—Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia—do not include sexual orientation or gender identity among the groups protected by local hate crime laws. Five states—Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Wyoming—have no hate crime laws.

On the federal level, a coalition of supporters of civil rights and women’s, LGBTQ, and victims’ rights movements created widespread public support for legislation addressing the often terrible violence arising out of the bias and prejudice embedded in U.S. society. In October 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed, expanding the federal government’s authority to prosecute hate crimes motivated by an individual’s actual or perceived race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. This act removed the requirement that the victim had to be engaged in a federally protected activity. It also provides the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with the authority to investigate hate crimes and to collect data about such crimes. This expanded federal hate crimes law was motivated by the brutal bias-motivated murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr.

In June 1998, James Byrd, Jr., an African American, was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas, by white supremacists. This horrific crime, which resulted in Byrd’s dismemberment, has been described as “lynching by dragging.” Later that same year, in October 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was brutally beaten and left to die, tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyoming, by two young men who later expressed homophobic attitudes and used a “gay panic” defense in the subsequent criminal trial. The extreme brutality of these terrible murders sparked a national outcry for federal hate crimes legislation. Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, became a tireless advocate for the LGBTQ communities, creating the Matthew Shepard Foundation and lobbying Congress for passage of federal hate crimes legislation.

One month after Matthew Shepard was killed, the Tectonic Theater Project, an innovative theater company from New York City led by Moisés Kaufman, visited Laramie, interviewed more than 200 community members and wove these interviews into a play called The Laramie Project. These interviews revealed a wide range of views of the LGBTQ communities in the town of Laramie. During the last decade, this documentary theater piece has been performed more than any other play in America. In 2002, it was made into an HBO film and has been performed around the world. Follow-up interviews conducted by the Tectonic Theater Company to find out how community attitudes may have changed over the succeeding decade resulted in a second theater piece: The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. A social network site has been created—The Laramie Project Online Community—that includes discussion forums and educational resources.

A few years after the horrific murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., a 16-year-old boy was killed in another hate-motivated crime. In June 2001, Fred Martinez, a Native American transgender youth from Cortez, Colorado, was bludgeoned to death by a young man who subsequently bragged that he “beat up a fag.” The public outcry over this brutal murder of a high school boy strengthened public support for hate crimes legislation. It also sparked the creation of new LGBTQ support groups, including local Two Spirits societies, whose mission is to provide a supportive space for, and educate others about, the nature of “two spirit” individuals. In many indigenous societies, persons who embody both male and female “spirits” are recognized as having a special gift and honored as spiritual leaders; Martinez was a nádleehí, a “two spirit” person, in his Navajo culture. A 2010 documentary film by Lydia Nibley, Two Spirits, explores Martinez’s death and the indigenous “two spirit” culture; it was broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and shown around the country.

In the wake of the especially violent murders of these and other victims, proponents of hate crime legislation argue that such legislation is needed to provide protection for more vulnerable groups in society and to help change public attitudes toward such groups. Naming and punishing hate crimes with enhanced penalties expresses public abhorrence of such crimes and are consistent with national values of diversity and inclusivity. Adding enhanced penalties for bias-motivated crimes will serve as a deterrent against such crimes and will aid in encouraging social acceptance of previously ostracized and maligned groups such as the LGBTQ communities. Opponents of hate crime legislation argue that by providing enhanced penalties for violence against members of certain defined groups, such legislation codifies the principle that the lives of some individuals are more valuable than others. In U.S. society, the murder of a heterosexual deserves the same penalty as the murder of a member of the LGBTQ community. Hate crime laws are an unnecessary redundancy, as existing criminal laws are more than adequate to prosecute and punish threats and acts of violence against all individuals. Opponents are also concerned that hate crimes legislation punishes thought, and expression of that thought, in violation of the First Amendment.

In Wisconsin v. Mitchell (1993), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the provision of enhanced penalties by states for “bias-motivated” crimes is constitutional, rejecting the argument that such penalty enhancement violates the First Amendment by improperly punishing thought and expression. The court explained that states have a compelling interest in protecting individuals and society from the damaging effects of hate crimes. To date, constitutional challenges to the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act have been similarly unsuccessful.


  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Hate Crimes.” (Accessed February 2013).
  2. Human Rights Campaign. “State Hate Crimes Laws.” (June 25, 2012). (Accessed February 2013).
  3. Krouse, William J. “Hate Crime Legislation.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. (October 16, 2009). RL33403_20091016.pdf (Accessed February 2013).
  4. National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP). “Hate Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Communities in the United States.” New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (2012). (Accessed February 2013).
  5. Potok, Mark. “Gays Remain Minority Most Targeted by Hate Crimes.” Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report. (Winter 2010). (Accessed February 2013).
  6. Tectonic Theater Project. The Laramie Project. (Accessed February 2013).
  7. Two Spirits. (Accessed February 2013).

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