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Hate-Crime Laws as Special Treatment

I was recently swayed by an argument I heard on the radio just after the breaking news of Matthew Shepard's death. The argument addressed hate crime legislation, which had quickly become a political focus. Many gay activists have lobbied for it as a counter to anti-gay harassment and assault. Others, throughout the political spectrum, have argued that hate crime laws give gays and lesbians special treatment. The argument on the radio ended its position with a summarizing question: "Why should the death of a man be more important if he's gay?"

My answer was: "It shouldn't be." And I think most people would answer the same. At that moment my support for hate crime legislation dropped like an arch without a keystone. In later discussion with one of my roommates we supported ourselves in this position. "They're being tried for murder. They'll spend a bunch of years in jail at least. That's enough," he said. One argument in support of hate crime laws follows closely the argument for affirmative action. The disabling and scarring past of a group of people should be reconciled or balanced by special support or assistance. This isn't quite "special rights" though. Gays and lesbians have no more freedom or authority, but those who would take their rights and freedoms away are punished more severely. Still, this seemed like special treatment.

Then, I found a simpler analogy. Let me ask you a question: "Should the death of a man be more important if he's robbed?" A murderer who robs is punished more severely. He can be charged with robbery. Why is the charge of a hate crime different from the charge of robbery? Shepard was killed; that's murder. For being gay, he was harassed, beaten, and burned; that's a hate crime. There's no murder of a higher degree, just an extra charge. Robbery, stealing a car, or rape might be involved in a murder, and the criminal is punished additionally. Is that "special rights" for people who have wallets, cars, or genitalia?

Gays and lesbians share, if nothing else, an identity. It is very diverse in all its facets and meanings, but it exists. Hate crime laws protect this identity, just as civil rights laws protect the identities of different races and creeds and sexes against violent attack, just as criminal laws protect our homes and bodies and bicycles.Even if you still think that hate crime laws are special rights, we could sure use them anyway.

Carlos M. Covarrubias '98