This piece first appeared in the November 20, 1998 issue of Commonweal.
The brutal murder last month of Matthew Shepard––the twenty-one-year-old gay college student in Wyoming who was beaten and tied to a cross-like fence to die––struck at the conscience of the nation. It was not only the sheer sadism and rancor of the crime that affected Americans, but the sense that Shepard's rights had been violated simply for being who he was.
Hate-motivated crimes have their own pedigree, their own smell. They are acts of criminal violence––among them kidnapping, torture, and murder––but their destructive capacity stems from a motivational intensity that sets them apart. When James Byrd, Jr., a disabled African-American, was dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas, last June, every reflective American knew instinctively that this crime was motivated by a particular loathing born of prejudice.
Crimes of this sort can be triggered by a victim's demeanor, color, status, ethnicity, speech, etc., which become the pretext for unleashing blind fury. For potential victims, the threat of such violence is a constant source of vulnerability, unease, fear, even terror. These violent acts of bigotry demand forceful and consistent redress, for they strike at the heart of the solidarity that binds society together; they undermine the very notion of equality.
Twenty-one states have laws that increase the penalties for hate crimes related to race, religion, color, national ori- gin, and sexual orientation. A further nineteen have laws that cover most of the above, but not sexual orientation, even though the F.B.I. reports that 12 percent of hate crimes in 1996 had to do with sexual orientation, and the Southern Poverty Law Center calculates that bias attacks against gays and lesbians are more than twice as likely as similarly motivated attacks on African-Americans, more than six times as likely as those directed at Jews and Hispanics. Ten states, Wyoming among them, have no such laws, and thoughtful people argue they are not needed. In Wyoming, after all, the death penalty is in force for murder, and criminals should be punished for their deeds, not their beliefs.