Hate Crimes Prevention Act Passes the Senate!

Yesterday afternoon, the Senate voted to pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act as part of the FY 2010 Defense Authorization bill. The final vote was 68-29.

The Unitarian Universalist Association, its Member Congregations, individuals across the nation, and staff at the Washington Office for Advocacy have worked for over a decade to pass this bill. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act expands the federal definition of a hate crime to include any and all violent crimes committed based on the victim’s actual or perceived disability, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Opponents of the bill sought to make crimes prosecuted under this new statute subject to the death penalty, but this measure was defeated and was not included in the final version of the bill. President Obama is expected to sign to Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law before the end of October.

Thank you to everyone who has worked so hard to pass this historic piece of legislation. The passage of this bill marks a milestone in the long struggle to seek justice for violence based on a person’s identity. This is also the first time that the federal government has passed any law that specifically protects transgender people. Please visit the website Love Conquers Hate for a retrospective of work on the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and to share your thoughts. We hope you will continue to work with us towards the day when all people are afforded the respect and equality that they inherently deserve.

Reflections on Anti-BGLT Violence in Tel Aviv

Last Saturday night in Tel Aviv, a masked gunman opened fire at an LGBT youth center in Tel Aviv, Israel. My Israeli cousin, who was visiting from her Tel Aviv suburban hometown, alerted me to what had happened. She was horrified that such violence could occur in the relatively open, accepting and cosmopolitan atmosphere of a large city like Tel Aviv. I watched international news coverage of the violence in shock.

I am American and Israeli, queer, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist. Last night, I attended a vigil in memory of the victims that was organized by members of the Jewish and BGLT communities here in Washington, D.C. I was proud, along with Rev. Archene Turner of Cedar Lane UU Church, to represent the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and to stand in solidarity with Jewish, Israeli, and bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender communities. The UUA offers our heartfelt sympathy to the families of the victims. Incidents such as this remind us that hate crimes can happen anywhere.

Just last week, the UUA community marked the one year anniversary of a shooting at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tenn. The perpetrator in that case was targeting the “foot soldiers of liberalism.” Two people lost their lives and seven others were injured. In response to this tragedy, the Unitarian Universalist Association has made a commitment to stand up in the face of exclusion, violence and oppression based on identity. We have committed to Stand on the Side of Love.

Rev. Chris Buice, the minister at the church in Knoxville talks about the “bystander effect.” We see it in school yards when people stand by and allow bullying to go on with impunity. By standing on the side of love we create a positive bystander effect, and we respond to a tragic act of hate with love.

Out of all of the images I saw from the news of this weekend’s shooting in Tel Aviv, the one of the word “ahava,” which means “love” in Hebrew, spelled out in lit candles touched me the most. I hope that all people can learn to see past identities that seem to divide us and into the wholeness and sacred light that surrounds us when we stand on the side of love as members of one human family.

Even as the speakers at last night’s vigil mourned the loss of two young lives, they took the opportunity to ask congregations and communities to become more openly accepting and welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. We applaud their decision to stand firmly on the side of love.

Call Your Senators in Support of Hate Crimes Legislation

Today and tomorrow, please call you Senators at the Capitol Switchboard (202-224-3121) and urge them to support the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which is being offered as the Leahy/Collins/Kennedy/Snowe Hate Crime Amendment to S. 1391, the Department of Defense Authorization bill.

The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act significantly improves our current hate crimes prevention laws. This bill expands the coverage of existing hate crime laws to include crimes based not only on race, color, religion, and national origin, but also crimes based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability.

This bill does not infringe on freedoms of speech and religion, but provides the federal government jurisdiction to prosecute hate crimes where current law or local law enforcement actions are inadequate. The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act will protect people that are subjected to violence and intimidation just for being who they are.

The Senate is likely to vote on this bill before the end of the week. Please call your Senators TODAY and TOMORROW and ask them to pass the Leahy/Collins/Kennedy/Snowe Hate Crime Amendment to the Department of Defense Authorization bill, S. 1391.

The 2009 Transgender Religious Summit

Yesterday I was privileged to co-lead a workshop for the National Center for Transgender Equality’s annual Religious Summit and Policy Conference at All Souls Church, Unitarian. This year, for the first time, the Religious Summit is being held in conjunction with the organization’s lobby days in Washington, DC. Adam Gerhardstein from the UUA Office for Advocacy, Steven Baines of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and I spent the morning with about 20 brave and dedicated transgender religious leaders, their family members and friends discussing the basics of lobbying and the important impact that people of faith can have on public policy.

Conference participants also attended the church service on Sunday at All Souls, and it felt wonderful to work with this group of passionate leaders and to welcome them into the sanctuary that I am learning to call a spiritual home. I feel deeply blessed that my congregation truly strives to be a place for all souls who seek refuge there.

During Sunday afternoon’s keynote address at the conference, Kate Bornstein spoke of the pain that arises when people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, particularly transgender people, are not seen as legitimate members of their own religions because their lives and appearances do not seem to match up with traditional religious expectations. Kate has coped with this exclusion by continuing to do the work that is required of all Jews: performing mitzvahs. According to Kate, a mitzvah is an act that fulfills the Jewish commandment to do God’s work by selflessly helping others who are different from you.

In my experience, Unitarian Universalism welcomes me as a whole person and a “real” member not just despite, but because of my queerness. I have been blessed and lucky to encounter others who see my unique existence and perspectives as cherished and sacred. People in my religious community have never made me feel less or wrong because of who and what I love or desire. I am also deeply aware that many of my fellow humans have not experienced the same welcome. I feel an obligation, as a member of a religion that claims to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to work towards the day when our Unitarian Universalist institutions and congregations truly reflect our radically inclusive and justice-seeking values. We have worked hard, but much remains to be done.

I’ll step down off of that soapbox for the moment.

Today, the 150 or so participants in the Religious Summit and Policy Conference combined lobbied on Capitol Hill sharing their personal histories, stories, and their conviction that everyone deserves full and equal protection under the law in their communities and workplaces. They are asking their members of Congress to support the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (LLHCPA) and the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA).

Take action today, and add your voice to theirs.

A Move Forward towards Equality for Trans people–Colorado Jury’s Historic Decision

Reflections from Keith Kron, Director of UUA Office of BGLT Concerns

Today, a Colorado jury became the first in the nation to find someone guilty of a hate crime against a trans person. Up until now, people were able to use a “trans panic” defense, saying that they were deceived and panicked when learning the person they were meeting was transgender. See a news report on the story.

This is historic and can now help prosecute other hate crimes in other states that are trans related. Colorado is one of 11 states that includes trans people in its hate crime legislation.

Many UU congregations observe the National Transgender Day of Remembrance (Nov 20th), and the UUA has resources to help.

The decision comes down days before the National Center for Transgender Equality hosts its Lobby Days where many, including many UUs and the UUA, will gather to support a federal legislation to support trans inclusion in hate crime and nondiscrimination laws.

There is still much work to be done before we see full equality for trans people, but today’s decision is a significant step in a better direction. The decision begins to signal that being afraid of trans people will not excuse violence toward trans people. It’s high time.

Matthew Shepard, 10 Years Later

Our guest blogger today is Keith Kron from the UUA’s Identity-Based Ministries (IBDM), director of the Office of BGLT Concerns:

“Life was so much easier twenty years ago.” – Kenny Rogers lyric from the song “Twenty Years Ago” in 1986.

“But Palin’s embrace of small-town values is where her hold on the national imagination begins. She embodies the most basic American myth — Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, the fantasia of rural righteousness — updated in a crucial way: now Mom works too. Palin’s story stands with one foot squarely in the nostalgia for small-town America and the other in the new middle-class reality.”
– Joe Klein, Sept. 10th,2008 Time Magazine

The two men who beat and tortured a gay University of Wyoming student ignored his pleas that they spare his life, leaving him tied to a ranch fence, unconscious and barely breathing, investigators said Friday. “During the incident the victim was begging for his life,” said Albany County Judge Robert A. Castor, reading an arrest affadavit.
– Associated Press, Oct. 10th, 1998

The Denver Post reports that one local resident “wasn’t shocked to hear a gay man had been beaten so severely.” She said: “Here in the rural West, such intolerance still is not that unusual.”

On October 12th, 1998, just less than hour after midnight, Matthew Shepard died. I had been preaching in Golden, Colorado, a couple of hours south of Laramie, Wyoming, when the story of Matthew’s attack broke and made national news.

Four days later, representing the UUA, I arrived back in Colorado and drove 2 hours north to Cheyenne, Wyoming. I arrived in Wyoming to participate in an interfaith service in Cheyenne, to speak to the UU congregation in Laramie, visit and listen to UUs and the bglt community of Casper, and attend a community gathering for the University of Wyoming students and faculty.

I said a few words, did a lot of listening, talked with various local religious leaders and community leaders, and was interviewed for local television (where the cameraman for the interview later would be seen as the weekend anchor).

But mostly I remember visiting the fencerow.

A group of us from the Laramie UU congregation went out to the fencerow where Matthew had been tied and left after the Sunday service. I was sure the car I was in was going to lose parts as we navigated the rocky terrain path to the fence. There wasn’t much close by, other than a house being built behind the fence a couple of football fields away. Remote. Remote and beautiful. The Rocky Mountains, the Big Sky of the West, the town of Laramie, all unfolded in front of the fence in spectacular fashion. I remember the view from the fence the most clearly.

It’s been ten years since Matthew was robbed, beaten, and killed. The world has changed a lot since then.

Our congregations held vigils in honor Matthew Shepard, needed less pushing to become Welcoming Congregations, and have worked for marriage equality. Will and Grace, Six Feet Under, Queer as Folk, and The L Word changed the television landscape. Barney Frank and Suze Orman are seen as experts in the current economic meltdown. Thirty-four states passed hate crime legislation where sexual orientation was included since Matthew’s death, though Wyoming never did. Massachusetts, California, and Connecticut have marriage for same sex couples; several other states have civil unions and domestic partnerships.

There is a hopeful line in the play The Laramie Project where a character remarks that “the world only spins forward.”

I think the Kenny Rogers song however speaks for many. When the song was release in 1986, twenty years ago would have been the mid-60s. If you’ve ever been to Alaska, once you get outside of Anchorage into smaller towns like Wasilla, Palmer, Seward, and Talkeetna, it feels like stepping back into smalltown USA in the 60s. There is a “neighborly-ness” to each place and a sense of order and manageability to life.

This is a big part of Sarah Palin’s appeal. Many in this country would like to return to a time when life seemed simpler, orderly, manageable. Most of these people are straight, white, and able-bodied.

Part of the allure of this nostalgic hope for a return to a simpler life is so that people don’t have to think about complexities of race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, ableism, and even to some extent sexism. In small town America these things had their place and you didn’t talk about them, and, for the most part, have to think about them. This is privilege, whether it be straight privilege, white privilege, or the privilege of any dominant group.

I think much of America would like to not have to think about the complexity of identity and oppression. The strongest way to keep oppression in place is through silence and pretending it’s not real.

Ten years after Matthew’s death, a gunman walked into a congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee. He didn’t like that the world had changed and that the congregation there had and was continuing to do community work on homophobia, racism, and other oppressions.

Being from East Tennessee myself, and remembering the 60s there in the small towns of Norris, Clinton, Andersonville, Lake City, and Harriman, there was an order to things. If you were white and male and able-bodied (and straight, though talking about that then was taboo), you had a certain revered place in society. You were going to get married, stay that way, and work in one job. This is the world that the gunman, Jim David Adkisson grew up in. Because he couldn’t have that and didn’t know how to deal with not having it, he decided to “make things right.” For Adkisson the world was only spinning and he had lost his balance.

Sarah Palin captured many people’s attention because she was from a small town, where the bigger problems were too many wild animals on the property, taking care of the kids, and making it to church on Sunday.

If you look at an electoral map by counties instead of by states, you see not red and blue states, but blue cities and red in most of the rest of the country. The red places where it was easier to imagine an easier life 20 years ago and the blue places where the world spun more quickly.

Matthew’s death happened in a very red place. Cheyenne is the largest city with 55,000 people. Laramie was a town divided.

If you don’t know Wyoming history, there were three major towns when Wyoming became a state—Cheyenne, Laramie, and Rawlins. The three cities got to draw straws. One city (Cheyenne) would get to be the capital. Another would be home to the state university (Laramie) . The third would have the state prison (Rawlins). Of note, Rawlins won the straw drawing contest and chose the prison. Cheyenne picked second, leaving Laramie with the university.

Laramie is divided between townies and those associated with the university. They depend on each other but tended, in 1998, not to interact much. University folks stayed in the university area. Town folks stayed out. People were generally polite but kept to themselves and didn’t intermingle a lot.

Matthew, a student, was attacked by two folks from the town. The University was the more progressive place. There was bglt student group at the time but no gay bars at all in the entire state of Wyoming. After Matthew was attacked and killed, people in Wyoming were outraged that this could happen and that the world would think of Wyoming as a backward place. They weren’t like that there.

Ten years later, we’re still struggling with divides. There are some who want to spin forward. Some who want the spinning to stop, or at least be in total control of it. There are those who are still willing to talk and those who want the talking to stop.

What I do know from visiting the fence ten years ago is that if you want the violence to end, you have to keep talking. Silence can heal and words can hurt but silence becomes oppressive when it leads to suppression. Words become healing when they speak the truth and honor feelings.

I wonder what Matt would have been doing with his life now, at age 31. I wonder what he would say to us now, if he could. I suppose we’ll never know.

But I do know that we help prevent such things happening again by honoring and remembering. And by talking and listening. I also know I don’t want to live in a world where the people silenced are the b/g/l/t people, the people of color, the differently abled, and women. I’ve been there and seen the results.

I’m sorry that Matthew and so many others had to be our silent teachers.

For me at least, life–where I can be open and myself, not hide parts of myself, talk about the realities of homophobia, racism, sexism, and ableism, and other oppression–is so
much easier than it was 20 years ago.

Engage the world. Have the conversation. Make a difference, wherever you live.