Today, the Senate joined the House in passing the Matthew Shepard Act, which
provides for stricter sentences if a crime appears to be motivated by anti-gay bias.
It's near certain that Obama will sign it, giving the Human Rights Campaign
a public relations boost and likely a fundraising bump. But in reality, the lobbying crusade for this legislation doesn't amount to much more than wasted effort and lost opportunity.
Hate-crimes legislation is symbolic: It sends the message that anti-gay
prejudice is abhorrent. But it does little for gay victims. Stricter
sentencing might send a message to bigots, but by then it is
probably too late. Even the bill's proponents concede that it is unlikely to
prevent violence against gays and lesbians. If that is really the goal -- and
it should be -- why not prioritize education and activism instead?
I don't think that all crimes are hate crimes and that this is a form of thought-policing like some, but I do question whether the movement should have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours fighting for a bill that kicks in after damage is done when
gays and lesbians can still be fired in most states for being gay. The
Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would have
a significant and concrete effect on how most gay people live their lives,
but it's taken a backseat to the HRC's strangely single-minded campaign to get
the Matthew Shepard Act passed.
Congress' heart may be in the right place, but it would be better for them to make a move where it makes a difference.