Hate Crimes Legislation Vital to Women's Lives

photo by AnitaMarie Murano
Debra Norhart and other members of NOW's Lesbian Rights Committee call for hate crimes legislation at the Supreme Court rally.

Two days after her two-year wedding anniversary, an Arkansas woman was found stabbed approximately 130 times in the breasts, vagina, buttocks, both eyes and forehead. Her husband was charged with the murder.

In Minneapolis, soon after moving to a new apartment, an African-American lesbian found a note reading "Hate Nigger Faggots" at her door. Over the course of several weeks, she and her child endured a host of slurs from neighbors, including: "dyke," "faggot," and "nigger." She and her child moved after a burned cross was left outside their door.

Amy Robinson, a mentally retarded grocery bagger, was abducted by two men in 1998 and used as "target practice" in a field in Fort Worth, Texas. The men shot her with arrows, a pellet gun and, finally, killed her with a pistol. Referring to Robinson's mental retardation, one of the men said, "She was suffering anyway. So I guess we just gave her a backdoor."

Across the United States, women are targets of hate crimes every day. Whether you live in Grand Traverse, Michigan or New York City, hate crimes happen. And, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) 1997 Hate Crimes Statistics Report, there were more than 8000 crimes reported which were motivated by bias based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity or national origin. Since the FBI does not track gender bias motivated attacks, there are no statistics available for those hate crimes that specifically target women.

According to Bonnie Campbell, director of the Office of Violence Against Women at the Justice Department, the largest number of complaints her office receives are from women who find state and local authorities fail or refuse to enforce the law, especially restraining orders. Campbell said her office is also concerned about complaints that law enforcement personnel cover up hate crimes against women, citing cases in which police evidence and reports disappear before the women can bring their claims. Even when local law enforcement is willing, many times they lack adequate resources to investigate and successfully prosecute the criminals.

Hate crimes have a chilling effect on every woman's life. The threat of such crimes instills fear in all women (not just the victims), limiting where we work, live and study. And when we speak out, the violence often increases. Fear 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. Unfortunately, our society is so inured to violence against women that we almost accept it as inevitable or even expected.

Under current law, the federal government can investigate and prosecute bias-motivated crimes based on race, religion and ethnicity, but not crimes motivated by sex, sexual orientation or disability. The 1999 Hate Crimes Prevention Act would broaden federal jurisdiction to investigate a hate crime by eliminating the current requirement that the victim had to be exercising a federally protected right. The Act defines "hate crime" as a violent act causing death or bodily injury "because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, or disability" of the victim. Many states lack comprehensive hate crimes laws, and FBI statistics show the incidence of hate crimes reported continues to be extremely high, although rates of most violent crimes are actually decreasing.

Our opponents argue that all crimes of violence are hate crimes. But, crimes targeting a person because of bigotry are intended not only to injure that person, but also to intimidate and silence an entire group. In the same way courts have managed to define when an assault is motivated by race or religious bias, they can identify and Congress must provide penalties for crimes motivated by sex, sexual orientation and disability bias.

It is clearly at a cost that our movement for equality moves forward. Sometimes the price women pay is physical violence. Resistance to expanding the federal hate crimes statute is part of the larger backlash against women. Every time we demand our civil rights, we are accused by the right-wing of wanting "special rights" - like the right to go to work without being abducted and killed, or the right to live in an apartment without being harassed, or the right to live without the fear of being brutally attacked.

Women are tired of paying for freedom with our lives. When we face violence simply because we're women, we live with words and deeds of hate burned into our minds for too many years. It is past time for Congress to enact the 1999 Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

We will not rest until all women, of all sexual orientations and abilities, can live our lives in peace and safety.

Return to Summer 1999 National NOW Times
Return to NOW Home Page / Search NOW site / Catalog / Send mail to NOW / Join NOW