NOW Pushes to Increase Hate Crimes Prosecution


by Kimberlee Ward,
Lesbian Rights Program Director

Despite an increase in bias-motivated crimes, including the bombing of a lesbian bar in Atlanta, the federal government does not have the authority to investigate or prosecute offenses motivated by a person's real or perceived sex or sexual orientation. NOW is working to change that.

In coalition with other civil rights organizations, NOW is lobbying members of Congress to amend the existing federal hate crimes criminal statute to include sexual orientation and gender-bias crimes. The coalition's unanimous decision to add gender was a radical change, inspired in part by the Atlanta bombings. It comes some eight years after NOW called the first meeting of coalition allies to discuss adding gender-motivated crimes to federal legislation.

While other federal laws provide increased penalties and data collection for certain hate crimes, NOW is working to amend Section 245 of Title 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code, which allows the federal government to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated crimes based on race, religion and ethnicity, but not sex or sexual orientation.

The Atlanta lesbian bar bombing highlights the need for Section 245 to include both gender and sexual orientation. As is common with hate violence against lesbians, we may never know if the bombing was a targeted attack on women in general or lesbians in particular. Nevertheless, the federal government could only investigate the bombing because it was a serial attack -- following the bombing of an Atlanta abortion clinic. Otherwise, the FBI would have no jurisdiction to investigate the case as a hate crime. Lack of a Georgia hate crimes law also prevented a state-level investigation.

The link between the two bombings and the message they send to women seems clear: no abortion clinic or lesbian bar is safe. Whether we live in Atlanta or another community, women are at risk.

NOW President Patricia Ireland said that we are sending a message through our efforts to stop the violence. "We will not rest until women of all sexual orientations can live their lives in peace. Our foes will not keep us in line through violent tactics," Ireland said.

Hate crimes include incidents of verbal harassment and physical violence. The term "hate crime" can often be confusing, as it does not require the assailant to know the victim personally, but to perpetrate a crime based on a number of characteristics, including membership in a class/group or political affiliation.

The threat of hate crimes instills fear in all women, limiting where we work, live and study. And when we speak out, the violence often increases. For example, 21 percent of reported crimes motivated by the victim's real or perceived sexual orientation last year were committed during the Gay Pride months of May and June.

This fear also severely impacts the number of reported hate crimes. Many lesbians and bisexual women would rather the offense go unreported than reveal their sexual orientation to the police. Additionally, mainstream culture so conditions women of all sexual orientations to accept the daily onslaught of misogyny that they do not consider many hate crimes unusual or illegal.

Despite problems with under-reporting, the 12th annual report of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs shows a six percent increase in hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation. Because women are not a class protected by the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, the FBI keeps no records of gender-based hate crimes, and there are no national surveys of hate crimes against women.

While the six percent increase may seem slight, it must be viewed in the context of an overall decrease in crimes across the country. Additionally, the severity of the crimes has increased, with many more assaults resulting in serious injury or death, and the violence occurred where lesbian and gay people should have felt the safest -- in their homes, at work and at local lesbian bars.

Responding to the report, Attorney General Janet Reno issued a statement calling the rise in hate crimes "disturbing" and made investigating and prosecuting hate crimes a top priority of the Department of Justice. Ensuring that DOJ has the authority to investigate and prosecute these crimes is essential, as states vary in their response to hate crimes:

Gender-based crimes, including domestic violence and rape, are all too common. Intimate partners annually commit more than one million assaults, rapes and murders against women, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey.

The Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta, which monitors hate groups, said that anti-abortion protesters are "rabidly homophobic" and often call clinic providers and protectors anti-lesbian and anti-woman names. Religious political extremists make clear connections between hate crimes based on sexual orientation and those based on gender.

NOW likewise makes those connections and is working with Congressional leaders to put federal teeth into the prosecution and tracking of gender- and sexual orientation-biased crimes.


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