Some Thoughts on Hate Crimes

Leslie Cagan


brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming a little more than a year ago

focused national attention on a long-standing reality for many lesbians, gay

men, bisexuals and transgender people: the widespread fear and hatred of people

outside the so-called norms of sexual expression all too often explodes into

acts of violence.


two young men who murdered Matthew Shepard have been tried for their crimes: one

has begun a life sentence and the other two life sentences. In the past year

there has been more public discussion than ever before about the anti-queer

violence visited upon so many on a daily basis. Frightening statistics about the

scale of the problem are reported in the mainstream press. There is a call for

"hate crimes" legislation coming from virtually every national lgbt

(lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) organization, from most local lgbt groups and

from a variety of leaders from different civil rights and progressive



something is missing from this picture…something critical to any meaningful

effort to stop the homophobic violence. There is no – okay, I’m exaggerating a

little – there is hardly any analysis of WHY lgbt people are the targets of such

violence. What does the demand for sexual freedom tap into that is so scary or

confusing for people? What structures are being challenged just by the existence

of gay people?


that, there is shockingly little discussion in the queer community about the

broader context of what can only be understood as the culture of violence we all

live in, every day. Those of you reading these commentaries on a regular basis

get a lot of information about the violence of U.S. foreign policy, whether it

is the ongoing bombing assaults on Iraq or the ravages brought on by economic

warfare. I bet you think about the violence of racism; rape, battering and other

violence directed at women; the brutality of the criminal "justice"

system and the death penalty; the harm done by an economic system which leaves

literally millions starving worldwide while a handful have more money that we

can even imagine.


is a way of life in this country. How frequently do we see news stories about a

workplace or high school shooting, or an off duty cop who goes home and kills

his wife and kids, or parents who brutalize or abandon their children? The

culture of violence is all around is: from toy guns for kids to the newest in

weapons delivery systems, from weapons on the streets to more nations with

nuclear weapons and the Senate’s refusal to sign a comprehensive nuclear test

ban treaty!


an activist in the queer community I am horrified by the lack of attention to

this larger context of violence. Some local lgbt organizations are working with

others to stop police brutality, and a few of our national groups condemned the

murder of James Byrd last year, but for the most part the discussion of violence

against gay people is presented in the narrowest terms possible…leading to the

weakest of ideas for how to handle to problem. Which brings me back to the issue

of hate crimes legislation.


I’m missing something, but I just don’t understand how a new category for

punishment prevents the crime from being committed in the first place? After

all, isn’t this one of the great lessons about the death penalty…the

possibility of execution if convicted does not in fact deter the commission of



October I went to a New York City rally to commemorate the anniversary of the

murder of Matthew Shepard. The over 5,000 angry people who marched last year

just a week after his murder had shrunk to a very passive group of several

hundred folks, many of whom wanted to march but event organizers had instead

invited countless speakers to the platform. Over and again, elected officials

and others cried out for hate crimes legislation. In the more than 20 people I

heard speak that evening only one said anything about stopping the crimes before

they happen. He was a high school teacher who talked about the need to deal with

the hard issues with kids before they go beating up people just because they are



this, in turn, brings me back again to the broader issue of the violence,

hatred, and intolerance all around us. Relying on state legislatures or the U.S.

Congress to pass hate crimes laws just doesn’t cut it. Unless and until we take

on the whole package…from the armed expressions and abusive use of state power

to the flood of guns on our streets, from the ever-expanding military budget to

the epidemic of rape and battering…no single piece of legislation will end the



is time for the lgbt movement to stop this almost obsessive demand for hate

crimes legislation and instead build strategic alliances with other communities

struggling to end the violence which touches us all, every day. It is time for

us all to deal with what causes violence in the first place. After all, isn’t

that what radicals are supposed to be all about?



Cagan: Decades long organizer in a board range of peace and social justice

movements, Leslie is presently involved in struggles to defend Open Admissions

at the City University of New York (CUNY). She is a co-chair of the National

Committees of Correspondence and is on the board of the Astraea National

Lesbian Action Foundation. Leslie is part of the growing effort to

re-invigorate a left/progressive presence in the

lesbian/gay/bi-sexual/transgender movement.


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