Thursday, February 21, 2008

Debating Hate Crimes

In the aftermath of Lawrence King's tragic murder (excellent complete coverage can be found on Towleroad), many questions are left unanswered: What can be done to protect vulnerable kids? How can bullying be stopped? Why do teenagers have access to guns in this country? How do you punish a murderer who is himself a child? How should we deal with hate crimes? There are no easy answers to these questions. What's certainly left behind from this murder is sadness and fury that a boy was killed because he did not fit into mainstream perceptions of who a boy should be. He was killed for being himself.

There have been various responses to the tragedy, from vigils to a peace march to parental calls for more metal detectors in schools, more attention to bullying and harassment of students. Then there's gun control, which tends to get mentioned in relation to such crimes, then dropped. And more inclusive hate crimes legislation.

One response to the murder came from John Cloud writing for Time. Many of us who read this piece after it was linked on Towleroad and other blogs were sickened by it. The fact that it was written by a gay man (one of us) added fuel to the fire. Why?

For me, the first red flag went up when the killer, Brandon McInerney, 14, was described as a "sweet-faced boy," humanizing him whereas King, the victim, was merely "an eighth grader who identified as gay and wore makeup and nail polish." Later, King's "fragile little face" is mentioned, but otherwise there is no attempt to humanize this victim. He is simply a victim.

Then Cloud goes on to describe how the crime shocked the community and "captured the attention of gay and transgender activists around the country." From here Cloud starts quoting statistics about the safety of gay and transgender kids in school, his point being that these statistics contradict "the dire picture painted by gay groups in the wake of King's killing." His ultimate point is that the activists are exaggerating hate in schools to push through LGBT-specific hate crimes legislation which, to Cloud's mind, is intended to "criminalize people's thoughts."

Of course statistics are open to multiple interpretations. The same statistics that Cloud interpreted to mean that the situation for LGBT students in schools is reasonably rosy (especially compared to, say, twenty years ago) gay policy analysts interpret quite differently.

On Towleroad, Jamie M. Grant, Policy Institute Director at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force responded to Cloud's assertions this way:

In minimizing the risks faced by LGBT students each and every day in America’s schools, John Cloud betrays either a lack of understanding of the data or a misreading of it when he accuses the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force of exaggerating the degree to which gay kids suffer in school. As research by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) makes clear, LGBT kids are far less likely to feel safe or very safe in school than their heterosexual counterparts (78% versus 93%), and almost one-fifth (18%) of those surveyed had been physically assaulted over the previous year. What is more, Mr. Cloud mischaracterizes a statistic regarding the reporting of harassment or assault and suggests that much of it wasn’t significant enough to report. In fact, fewer than half of the students who did report incident(s) of harassment or assault felt that it made any difference. And among those who did not report being victims of harassment or assault fully 50% said that it was because they expected nothing would be done about it or that they personally would suffer repercussions. On the heels of a premeditated murder of a vulnerable child taunted for being openly gay, John Cloud seems bent on whitewashing the harsh realities of a broad range of LGBT kids in our schools. I can’t imagine such gross indifference to a child being murdered after having been taunted for being Jewish, or Latino, or heterosexual. Cloud’s lack of outrage builds a strong case for exactly what he argues against – increased penalties for a range of crimes that the state and the wider culture have long dismissed as insignificant.

Cloud concludes his article this way:

We may never know the real motivations for King's murder. McInerney, the alleged killer, is being charged as an adult and, if convicted, will likely spend the rest of his childhood, and most of his adulthood, behind bars. He deserves harsh judgment. But his victim's heartbreaking life and death should be occasions for mourning, not legislation.

I think what many people, myself included, found disturbing about this article was the lengths Cloud went to to show that Lawrence King's murder was a heartbreaking anomaly (one, according to Cloud, with an uncertain motivation when, in fact, the motivation seems quite clear), a personal tragedy rather than something we, as a society, should be overly concerned about. Though it wasn't likely his intention, Cloud's tactic of skimming over a boy's murder to focus on statistics designed to make his larger anti-hate-crimes-legislation point seemed incredibly callous. Lawrence King wasn't a statistic. He was a unique human being. The fact is, for all the strides that have been made to make it easier for LGBT kids to come out at an earlier age, queer kids, particularly those who don't fit neatly into assigned gender roles (or statistical norms), are still disproportionately at risk compared to straight kids. They are singled out for abuse.

Certainly a debate about the efficacy, value, and ethics of hate crimes legislation is warranted. But it shouldn't be at the expense of a young man, who, unlike the fortunate members of Cloud's rosy statistics, did suffer. Furthermore, reducing the prosecution of hate crimes to "criminalizing people's thoughts" ignores the actual intentions behind recognizing hate crimes. Hate crimes, because they target not only an individual but a social group, terrorize not only individuals but whole communities. Crimes against minorities have a long history of being underprosecuted. And, in the legislative debates over the Matthew Shepard Act, it is impossible to imagine that right-wing pressure to exclude sexual orientation and gender identity from protection is based on anything but homophobia. So, while the definition of and need for hate crimes legislation is debatable, to ignore the homophobia within many opponents' reasoning, as Cloud does, is another way of denying the significance of Lawrence King's murder, and the murders of so many other LGBT people before him.

The mainstream media tends to downplay the killings of people considered too marginal to be of interest to the masses. It's disheartening when a gay writer, one with an influential platform, uses that platform to further erode the attention given to people who are too often ignored in life and too often targeted for death.


JT said...

I did as you suggested on Towleroad and followed your link. Job well done, sir. I can only hope others (and perhaps one in particular) do the same. I am already a member of the choir; we need more members.

As you point out, hate crimes are special in that they have a purpose besides carrying out a vendetta against an individual. They send the "or else" message to groups of people that rocking the boat comes with consequences. Therefore, the consequences of such acts need to be special as well. Unless one acts out on thoughts, thoughts by themselves are hardly actionable offenses. But combined with actions or used to justify feelings that "others" are "less than", they become dangerous stepping stones on the path to justifying acts of violence. But I guess that's just me an my mumbo-jumbo going off on specious arguments, AGAIN!

Have a good day.

place in sun said...

Thanks for the visit and comment, JT. I couldn't agree more. See you on Towleroad.

Hermes in DC said...


I followed your link from Towleroad and am glad that I did so.

As you know, I was very critical of much of the commentary on about Cloud's article. My point was not so much that I agree with him, or that his point was an important one to make, but that oversimplification of the author's point and ad hominem attacks on the author do little to advance real dialogue.

I commend you though for a piece here which is the antithesis of what I was criticizing there. Your argument is well and carefully argued and gives me a lot to think about. I particularly appreciate that you focus your comments on Cloud's argument and the fault you find with it as opposed to calling him names or attributing malicious intent where there is no evidence of any.

Your argument is particularly interesting on the issue of hate crimes legislation, about which, as I noted on, my mind is not made up.

Anyway, I learned a lot from reading your blog today and will return in the future.

Best wishes,


place in sun said...

Thanks, Hermes. I agree, there can be a lot of name-calling on the blogs and a lack of thoughtfulness. It's easy to fall prey to personality and lose the issue at hand. (I've probably succumbed a few times myself.) I did understand on Towleroad that you were genuinely struggling with the issue; it's not all black and white, is it? Best Wishes.