Saturday, October 28, 2017

Today in 2009: Obama Signs Hate Crimes Prevention Law

Joe Tresh Photography
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, is an American Act of Congress, passed on October 22, 2009, and signed into law by President Barack Obama today,  October 28, in 2009, as a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010 (H.R. 2647). 

Conceived as a response to the murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., the measure expands the 1969 United States Federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

The bill also does the following:

  • Removes, in the case of hate crimes related to the race, color, religion, or national origin of the victim, the prerequisite that the victim be engaging in a federally protected activity, like voting or going to school;
  • Gives Federal authorities greater ability to engage in hate crimes investigations that local authorities choose not to pursue;and
  • Requires the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to track statistics on hate crimes based on gender and gender identity (statistics for the other groups were already tracked).
The Act is named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Shepard was a student who was tortured and murdered in 1998 near Laramie, Wyoming. The attack was widely reported due to his being gay, and the trial employed a gay panic defense. 

Byrd was an African American man who was tied to a truck by two white supremacists, dragged behind it, and decapitated in Jasper, Texas, in 1998.

The murders and subsequent trials brought national and international attention to the desire to amend U.S. hate crime legislation at both the state and Federal levels. Wyoming hate crime laws at the time did not recognize homosexuals as a suspect class, whereas Texas had no hate crime laws at all.

Supporters of an expansion of hate crime laws argued that hate crimes are worse than regular crimes without a prejudiced motivation from a psychological perspective. The time it takes to mentally recover from a hate crime is almost twice as long as it is for a regular crime and LGBT people often feel as if they are being punished for their sexuality, which leads to higher incidence of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They also cited the response to Shepard's murder by many LGBT people, especially youth, who reported going back into the closet, fearing for their safety, experiencing a strong sense of self-loathing, and upset that the same thing could happen to them because of their sexual orientation.

According to FBI statistics, of the more than 113,000 hate crimes since 1991, 55 percent were motivated by racial bias, 17 percent by religious bias, 14 percent sexual orientation bias, 14 percent ethnicity bias, and 1 percent disability bias.

Though not necessarily on the same scale as Matthew Shepard's murder, violent incidences against gays and lesbians occur frequently. Gay and lesbian people are often verbally abused, assaulted both physically and sexually, and threatened not just by peers and strangers, but also by family members.

Gay and lesbian youth are particularly prone to victimization. Victims often experience severe depression, a sense of helplessness, low self-esteem, and frequent suicidal thoughts. Gay youth are two to four times more likely to be threatened with a deadly weapon at school and miss more days of school than their heterosexual peers. Further, they are 2-7 times more likely to attempt suicide. 

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