In trying to beat back a growing wave of support for federal hate crime legislation, the right wing was up to its most dastardly and divisive old tricks. On April 17, they had scheduled a media conference at the National Press Club pairing so-called "ex-gays" with anti-gay black ministers. Their goal was to drive a wedge between the African American and GLBT communities by cynically sending the repulsive and incorrect message that homosexuality is unnatural and changeable, while race is immutable and genetic.
It turns out, however, that their science is as bad as their political acumen. The event had to be cancelled at the last minute, following the murderous rampage at Virginia Tech. Although the motive is still under investigation, a pro-hate conference became a liability with the worst killing spree in American history dominating the news. The ghoulish images that saturated television coverage had people calling for more law enforcement protection, at a time when our opponents were calling for less.
On the other side of Washington, the Human Rights Campaign deftly organized and deployed 220 supportive clergy members from all 50 states, on the day the U.S. House's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security heard testimony on the hate crime bill. (On April 12, the "Matthew Shepard Act" hate crime bill was introduced in the Senate.)
On the Hill, the subcommittee heard testimony from a strong line-up of bipartisan witnesses including Utah's Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff; George Washington University Law School Dean Frederick Lawrence; hate crime victim David Ritcheson of Harris County, Texas; and Jack McDevitt, associate dean at Northeastern University.
The most powerful witness was Ritcheson, 18, who was pulverized by skinheads last April and sodomized with the plastic pole of a patio umbrella while his two assailants yelled anti-Hispanic slurs. He required thirty surgeries before he was on the mend.
"My name is David Ritcheson and I appear before you as a survivor of one of the most despicable and shocking acts of hate violence this country has seen in a decade," Ritcheson told the House panel, according to The Associated Press.
In order to counter such powerful stories, groups like the Family Research Council have resorted to outright lies. For example, they oppose protections against hate crimes based on gender identity and sexual orientation claiming that people should not be prosecuted for their "thoughts."
Tellingly, they have not lobbied very hard to repeal hate crime laws based on religion that have been on the books since 1969. The only thought crime here, is that their transparent anti-gay bias is, quite frankly, thoughtless and criminal.
The hypocrisy deepens when one considers that right wing groups (rightfully) support American intervention when Christians are brutalized overseas. If the federal government can sanction foreign governments for religion-based hate crimes, why does FRC have a problem with the FBI investigating hate crimes against gay people in the states?
While the right wing does not openly advocate hate violence, they have a dirty little secret. Their leaders know that the threat of anti-gay brutality helps keep many homosexuals in the closet, thus limiting the GLBT community's political power. An oppressive climate of fear serves as a useful tool in the religious right's mean-spirited culture war. This is why they so adamantly oppose GLBT-inclusive anti-bullying measures in public schools.
Federal hate crime laws do not regulate thought, as the right disingenuously claims. What it does, however, is allow the FBI and Justice Department to investigate bias crimes. It also gives local law enforcement the financial aid and technical resources it needs to solve these offenses, which tear at the social fabric of entire communities.
Of course, I fully expect President George W. Bush to veto this legislation once it passes the House and the Senate. Hopes that Bush might do the right thing, rather than the right wing thing, faded years ago, along with the misnomer of "compassionate conservatism." However, the massacre in Blacksburg has focused the nation's attention on the need to stop pointless violence. This macabre event greatly raises the stakes for an unpopular president who will pay a political price for vetoing this popular and bipartisan legislation.