Sunday, December 12, 2010

Two Queer Issues, One Critical Critique: Why Queer Left Community Groups Are Right About Hate Crimes, Anti-Bullying Laws

By Richael Faithful

                                               With friends at Dyke March, DC Pride, 2008

The Washington Blade, Washington D.C.'s nationally-syndicated, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) newspaper, reported two stories this week of interest to people with leftist queer politics: latest developments in the murder of gay middle school principal, Brian Betts, and the D.C. City Council's anti-bullying legislative debate. On the surface they are routine stories covered by the LGBT paper, but these two stories illustrate the critiques of Left queer community groups on hate crimes and anti-bullying legislation, which often go unheard and unnoticed by gay liberals.

More of the Same
The first issue is hate crime penalty enhancements. In the very tragic story of Brian Betts, the gay D.C. middle school teacher was slain in his Silver Spring home this summer, allegedly by four teenagers who sought to rob him after one of the teens was invited to his home via a sex chat line. Betts was shot and killed when "the robbery went bad." The identified shooter, Alante Saunders, who is 19 years-old, plead to a felony murder charge, resulting in a 40-year prison sentence (20 year minimum). The second teenager, Sharif Lancaster, who is also 19 years-old, plead to robbery and use of a handgun during a commission of the felony, and he faces a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison. Plea negotiations are underway for the other two young men. Clearly, these young people are not "getting off easy," nor is there any sign that local prosecutorial misconduct.

Then, why is Gloria Allred, here?

Attorney for-the-stars, Gloria Allred, has been hired by the Betts family to "explore whether or not Brian’s murder should also be prosecuted under the new Matthew Shepard federal hate crimes law.” The Matthew Shepard Hate Crime and James Byrd Jr. Act, passed in 2009, added sexual orientation and gender identity to existing hate crimes protections that enables federal investigations and prosecutions of alleged crimes motivated by LGBT bias. Many LGBT activists applauded the passage of law, which in principle, humanized queer lives under the law as deserving of to be free from violence, and in practice, equipped federal authorities to intervene in cases where local prosecutors were not making a reasonable effort to investigate allegations, pursue charges, or prosecuting a case. But, the most well known and controversial provisions of the Matthew Shepard Act were the penalty enhancements--on both the Right and the Left.

In particular, New York queer community groups, representing queer people of color, including The Sylvia Rivera Project, Queers for Economic Justice, Audre Lorde Project, among others, challenged gay liberals by announcing their opposition to a comparable state hate crimes proposal that was being discussed while the Matthew Shepard Act was making its way through Congress. Their open letter explains:

Rather than serving as protection for oppressed people, the hate crimes portion of this law may expose our communities to more danger—from prejudiced institutions far more powerful and pervasive than individual bigots....Trans people, people of color, and other marginalized groups are disproportionately incarcerated to an overwhelming degree. Trans and gender non-conforming people, particularly trans women of color, are regularly profiled and falsely arrested for doing nothing more than walking down the street. Almost 95% of the people locked up on Riker’s Island are black or Latin@. Many of us have been arrested ourselves or seen our friends, members, clients, colleagues, and lovers arrested, often when they themselves were the victims of a violent attack.

In other words, queer groups feared that hate crimes penalty enhancements would not be administered blindly-- they would be used to further punish queer victims who were of color and/or simply put more young people of color away into the Prison Industrial Complex without providing meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation. One's imagination need not go too far back into history to envision the former scenario; the New Jersey 4, black lesbians acting in self-defense but later prosecuted themselves, is a sad reality faced by some queer folks of color. As for the other scenario, we can just look at the Betts case.

Betts was a white professional gay man and each of the four teenagers arrested for his murder are of color. Two of the teens will be in prison for more time than they have been alive, and the same is projected for the other two. It difficult to see the purpose penalty enhancements in this case--adding on 2 or 3 levels (several years depending on the person's offense, history, etc.)--serves any system of justice. These young people will be stored in prisons for decades. Worse, by incapacitating them for years, we only give them more incentive to hate queer people when they are released (notwithstanding the complicated, sexual politics of prison). Gloria Allred is professing a popular position behind hate crime laws but this position doesn't account for the real issues raised by people most affected by the law, and ironically, people most at risk for anti-queer violence.

Too Much Libertarian, Too Little Justice
The second issue is anti-bullying protection for LGBT students. Needless to say this issue is in response to media attention on LGBT-bullying. America has woken up to learn that young queer people (real or perceived) are subject to abuse and violence by fellow students (at least as much older people abuse, taunt, harass, and inflict violence on queer people, generally). The always-progressive D.C. Council has taken up the Bullying Prevention Act, and the Harassment and Intimidation Act, which are measures that would require all DC schools, including charter schools, and the University of D.C., to implement anti-bullying policies at least as strong as the District's model policy created by the proposed laws. Given the rash of suicides and murders, who would have reservations about the legislation? 

Well...liberal champions, like the D.C. ACLU.

Apparently the D.C. ACLU supports anti-bullying legislation in theory, but doesn't believe that bill's language of the bill "tightly" defines bullying in its current form. In the Blade article, Arthur Spitzer who is the chapter's local director, rhetorically asks, "What does it mean by harming a student? Does that mean hurting a student's feelings?" Of course, the bill provides a number of definitions, and sub-definitions, all of which complement Supreme Court case law (Tinker and Bethel, for example) that further define the threshold for an act to substantially disrupt a learning environment. While I understand the ACLU's inclination to be concerned about free speech (I'm a long-time member myself), sometimes, the organization can be too liberty-focused, and not enough justice-focused.

Here it is. In 2009, nearly 9 out of every 10 LGBT students experienced school harassment alone, according to the leading LGBT student advocacy organization, GLSEN. And, most local activists or organizers can tell you that technical legal squabbles related to language are usually worked out by the governing body's legal counsel, whom often will invite stakeholders like the ACLU to the table for revisions. The queer Left has long-advocated that isolation kills, and that queer young people experience their own school-to-prison pipeline as they are forced out of school at high rates due to un-addressed bullying. Frankly, the D.C. ACLU needs to get it together--make suggestions to the language of the bill--and get behind it. The ideological liberals' predilections really can miss the big picture of saving lives.

A message to my gay liberal friends: listen a little more and a little more carefully, and you may learn something from your Left-radical friends. We may not be working toward the same goals, but we have more in common than not.

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