Friday, October 23, 2009

Pushing back against hate

Today the U.S. Senate passed the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crime Prevention Act (nestled within the Defense Department authorization). The measure had already cleared the House. Matthew Shepard was a white gay college student who was beat up and left to die hanging on fence in Wyoming 11 years ago. James Byrd was an African-American beaten and dragged three miles at the end of a chain behind a pick up truck in Texas in 1998. Both killings were bias crimes.

Passing a hate crimes law has been a major objective of all the LGBT advocacy outfits in Washington for ten years. Though the bill actually passed out of the House and Senate in the last Congress, President George W. Bush persuaded Congressional leadership to drop it before the measure to which it was attached (war funding, 'natch) got to him. President Obama has promised to sign it this time.

This year's bill is the first piece of federal legislation to include gender identity as well as sexual orientations under legal protections. Despite the fears of homophobes and other right wingers, it doesn't forbid anyone to say hurtful things about queers and those perceived as gender-nonconforming -- but it will lead to education for law enforcement and the general public about the need to prevent hate violence against LGBT people and enable the feds to get involved when such crimes happen.

A bit of history makes clear how major a political victory passing this law is: despite nearly 5000 racially motivated lynchings in the first half of the 20th century, the Senate blocked over 200 bills explicitly criminalizing lynching between 1900 and the 1950s. In 2005, the Senate passed an apology to the victims of past lynching -- but insisted on a voice vote, so Senators still in opposition to this repudiation of historic racism would not have to be counted. Dredging equity out of Congress is never easy, however obvious the need appears.

Meanwhile in other parts of the world, it is still hard to be gay and/or gay friendly -- and in some places it getting harder. The gentleman at the left is Rt. Rev. Christopher Senyonjo, former Anglican bishop of Western Buganda in Uganda, and a determined friend of gay people in his country. After his retirement, he found himself offering counseling and acting as chaplain to a group of young gay men in Kampala. The 77-year-old, married, father of seven, was deprived of his pension and kicked out of his church for taking in these outcasts. I had the privilege of spending time with this kind, straightforward man in the course of work for the full inclusion of LGBT in the Episcopal Church.

Uganda is currently in the grip of a classic panic about homosexuality -- demagogues are charging that the few visible gay people will somehow destroy the precarious nation. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) describes a proposed new law:

Uganda's Penal Code Article 145a already criminalizes "carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature" – a charge used to prosecute, persecute and blackmail LGBT people with the threat of life imprisonment. The new bill would specifically penalize homosexuality, using life imprisonment to punish anything from sexual stimulation to simply "touch[ing] another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality." It also punishes "aggravated homosexuality" – including activity by "serial offenders" or those who are HIV positive – with the death penalty.

The bill criminalizes "promotion of homosexuality" in the form of funding and sponsoring LGBT organizations and broadcasting, publishing, or marketing materials on homosexuality and punishes these acts with a steep fine, 5-7 years of imprisonment, or both. Any person in authority who fails to report known violations of the law within 24 hours will also be subject to a significant fine and up to 3 years in prison – even when this means turning in their colleagues, family, or friends. More shocking, the bill claims jurisdiction over Ugandans who violate its provisions while outside of the country.

This is hate indeed. And Bishop Christopher would fall directly in its reach along with this congregation.

People in the United States need to raise our voices against this proposal. It's not enough to just get our own law. IGLHRC has provided email addresses and a sample letter at this link.


Kay Dennison said...

How sad that we need a law for this!!!!! I don't understand wicked people.

Darlene said...

You must feel like you are taking one step forward and two steps backward in this struggle for simple equality. It is beyond belief how ignorant some people are.

Cloudia said...

We hyave waited so long for this law.....the struggle against darkness continues...

Aloha, Friend!

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