When President Obama signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law Wednesday, human rights advocates across the country won a decent, but insufficient, victory.
At face value, the bill is but a reluctant acknowledgment that Americans assaulted because of their sexual orientation are indeed victims of bigotry. Adding insult to injury, the measure had to be attached to a defense spending bill just to pass.
Is this the best Congress can muster when it comes to advancing gay rights?
Such legislation will not bring back to life Matthew Shepard or James Byrd Jr., the slain men for whom the act is named. Nor will it make Jack Price — the gay New Yorker beaten nearly to death this month — any less battered. The law morbidly protects gays only after they have been attacked; any consideration for their safety and human rights before such an occurrence still seems a congressional afterthought.
Put another way, our nation’s dead and hospitalized homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendered people are receiving after-the-fact sympathies, while the healthy gays and lesbians among us are expected to suffer from the same root discrimination. Are rights advocates expected to remain patient, even happy, about such progress?
The proverbial plate is too full, pooh-poohs our political elite. The rationale underlying such sentiments is that reforming our nation’s health-care system, improving our economy and winning the war in Afghanistan must of course take priority over gay rights.
Such logic is meaningless to Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, who after 18 years of exemplary service is facing dismissal for “damaging” the Air Force’s “good order and discipline.” Obama has pledged to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay service members, but he has yet to set a timetable. Meanwhile, Fehrenbach is one of many whose sexual orientation unfairly compromises their jobs, health benefits, retirement — and, ultimately, our nation’s war efforts. Political side-stepping of the issue also suggests that more sacrifice is required of a man who has already devoted much of his life to serving our country.
I come from a different generation — the one that showed up in unprecedented numbers to vote last November and by doing so helped elect a president who just happens to be the first minority to hold that office. It was noble — even hip — to fight against the bigotry and discrimination that the Obama campaign faced. Wasn’t our country in an economic crisis, debating health-care reform and fighting two wars at that time, too?
Recall the widespread dismay when Sen. John McCain suspended his campaign last fall to focus solely on the bailout plan. “Part of the president’s job is to deal with more than one thing at once,” Obama said in response. “In my mind it’s more important than ever.”
Obama was right then, and the point is still important. America needs the same multitasking attitude from all our elected officials.
It is wrong to ask gay Americans to wait until every future war is won, every societal ill is treated and every business is booming before being granted equal protection under law; it is equally disturbing to think that today, one must be a victim of a hate crime before receiving such consideration.
Is it too much to ask for more, sooner rather than later?
Update October 29, 2009
Both Slate and the Atlantic have referenced my article! Even more exciting, the free-style investigative journalist William Wolfrum turned it into satire, giving the ideas a second (and I admit, even more scathing) life. Now, both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams have weighed in!
Also, I’ve taken the liberty to include some of the best comments below — from all sides of the aisle — from the Washington Post’s online debate.
I also would like to post this email (with the author’s name removed) that I received. It’s touching, humbling, and reminds me why I write:
I’m a 56-year-old lesbian (and an attorney) and writing to thank you for your recent op-ed in the Washington Post, which expressed the same frustration that I feel with the powers that be in Washington and, to a certain extent, in our own movement, who want us to be content with what are, relatively speaking, legislative crumbs.
I’ve been working for gay rights since 1972 when, as a junior at Princeton, I helped found the Gay Alliance of Princeton, the school’s first gay student organization. As a gay person in this country, I long ago reached my Fannie Lou Hamer moment — I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’m tired of the fact that gay people who want to serve our country are still losing their jobs in the armed services. I’m tired of the fact that my partner of 31 years and I are treated like legal strangers. I’m tired of the fact that in so many places in this country, people can be fired just because they are gay.
I was heartened to see so many young people at the March here in D.C. on October 11 who will not accept this status quo, and heartened by your op-ed. Thanks again.