Lobbying a Hate Crimes Bill with Real Grassroots Activists

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Matthew Shepard Act this week, adding protections to existing law for victims of crimes based on the victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The bill now goes to the Senate, where I spent the early part of this week. I followed a group of citizens who are trying to persuade their senators to support the inclusion of transgender people in the final bill.

This isn’t the kind of lobbying that has given this kind of work a bad name. These aren’t well-funded corporate hacks trying to carve out a sweet deal for their industry. They’re ordinary Americans who joined together to make it harder for the government to ignore their voices.

They’re members of the National Transgender Center for Equality, and they want their elected representatives to go to bat for their right to exist, safely, in the United States.
The hate crimes bill in question does not involve enhanced penalties for these crimes, a common misconception. It provides resources and funding for investigation, enforcement, and training. It does, however, amend existing hate crimes laws to include several new classes of people for protection.

Hate Crimes and the Constitution

Critics of hate crimes laws argue that they violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Here’s a good summation of these arguments:

However, we don’t differentiate between murder for profit and murder for a particular animus of hate. Doing that creates a subtle but significant change in which the state has suddenly become the arbiter of thought, determining different outcomes based on thought despite the similarity of crime. The First Amendment arguments are obvious, but Jazz Shaw thinks this also violates the Fourteenth as well:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Long story short: When you pass laws which assign greater guilt to certain parties for committing the same crimes, based on nothing more than what they were thinking at the time and the “class” of citizens who were the victims, then you are providing unequal protection of the laws. You are assigning a higher value to the lives, liberty and property of some victims than others based on their sexual orientation, their race, skin color, religion, etc.

The problem with these arguments is that they assume that a hate crime is the same as a non-hate crime in every respect except the speech. Hate crimes, however, are attacks on an entire group of people. You wouldn’t treat an attack by a foreign power on the United States the same way you would a first-degree homicide, and the same principle applies here. The individual act is a threat on the larger population.

Transgender Equality

It helps to know what transgender means. It can be confusing to the uninitiated. Here’s NCTE’s definition:

Transgender is an umbrella term that refers to people who live differently than the gender presentation and roles expected of them by society. There are many kinds of people who fit this term and the rest of terms describe some of them.

The rest of the pamphlet I linked goes into detail about the spectrum of people covered by the term, including transsexuals at various stages of transition, intersex people, and cross dressers. Terminology can be a minefield even to well-intentioned people, but most transpeople I know are very patient if your heart is in the right place.

Transgender people have played an unusual part in the LGBTQ movement. While they are often its most visible members, and hence lightning rods for the movement’s opponents, they have also been left behind at times when the movement made progress.

For example, most of the people involved in the Stonewall Uprising would qualify as transgender, yet when it came time for negotiations on the Employment Non Discrimination Act, prominent gay rights advocates were willing to exclude transpeople to ensure its passage.

Lobbying Congress

On Monday and Tuesday, I accompanied members of NCTE as they met, strategized, and went to Capitol Hill to lobby their congresspeople. I sat in meetings between them and legislative aides to Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, These people met with their senators with no influence to trade on, not very many votes to leverage, really only with their own humanity on their side.

I listened as they told their stories to the young legislative aides, who listened intently.

Lorianne Blake, a transwoman and NCTE member, told the story of an attack she endured at the hands of a group of young men. She was traveling on business, and had left her hotel to find a place to eat. A group of young men accosted her, yelling, “Hey, it’s a dude in a dress!”

They chased her and beat her badly. When the police questioned her, they never asked her about her attackers, their descriptions, or anything. They only wanted to know what she was doing walking in public.

While Lorianne spoke, I was moved by the softness with which she told her story. Not a trace of anger or bitterness, just a plea for the safety that others enjoy.

Lorrianne also talked about how she had been discriminated against in the workplace, dismissed form her job without explanation. The NCTE was also lobbying for inclusion in upcoming ENDA legislation.

Sheryl Courtney-Evans told her story with energy and humor. She was waiting for a bus when some men in a passing car started to shout come-ons at her. Then, she says with a smile, “the penny dropped for one of them. He shouted ‘That’s one of them expletive expletives!'”

The next thing she knew, she says, she caught a pint bottle to the head. She says they sped off only because of approaching traffic.

She also spoke with compassion about employment discrimination in this economy, and the depths that it forces some transpeople into.

Monica Helms showed Senator Chambliss a photograph of her son, a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She talked about how her son, even as he faced peril in a combat zone, was more worried about her safety than his own. She reminded the aide that this bill is not about enhanced penalties, but that it sends a message to people that it is not OK to target transpeople.


Juliana Illari, like me, is an ally of the trans community. She is a professional lobbyist who lent her expertise to the NCTE delegation. We both have friends and loved ones in the transgender community, and recognize that it is our responsibility to stand with them.

The legislative aides we talked to seemed very receptive, but it remains to be seen how this will translate when it comes time to vote. Politically, there’s not much in it for the two Republicans from Georgia, who stand to lose more from their conservative base than they stand to gain from a relatively small voting bloc.

Still, the rest of the NCTE delegates lobbied tirelessly all over the Hill, and they are optimistic that the final bill will be passed, and will include them.

Personally, I have to say that, although I was already in their corner, I came away from this with a new appreciation for this kind of struggle. It is a stunning achievement given that these people have little to wield against the wheels of power than their own soft voices.// // Tommy on: Daily Dose:

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2 Comments

  1. […] using the issues as a wedge, they’re combining them to advance a gunrights amendment in the Matthew Shepard law: The possible plan — to add an amendment that would allow gun owners to carry their weapons from […]

  2. […] Action Conference for 2010 over the weekend.  If it wasn’t for columnists such as Tommy Christopher and the people at Queerty, it is highly probable that the punchline of these comments would have […]


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