A homophobic altercation interrupted the peace of a sunny Sunday afternoon at the St Lawrence antique market. A show of affection between a gay couple provoked a man into a rage. He threatened to physically assault the couple, and appeared aggressive enough to make good on his threat.
Had he attacked, would it have been a hate crime? Prominent US hate crimes expert Jack Levin suggests we must be very careful in using the hate crime label when attackers feel provoked.
I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with the notion of hate crimes. Shouldn’t we remain focussed on acts and intent, not the extremely complicated thoughts or feelings which motivate them? Do hate crime laws create Orwellian thought crimes, or do they send a clear message that our society will no longer tolerate people acting out well-known bigotries?
Levin has long been an advocate of zero tolerance policies for hate crimes perpetrators, yet he is skeptical of applying the label too loosely. I generally welcome skeptical advocates; their credibility is enhanced when they examine alternatives or admit when they’re wrong. But I’m troubled by Levin’s logic here.
Levin has weighed in on the murder of Gwen Araujo, a transgendered teenager who was brutally murdered at a California house party after her biological maleness was discovered.
Levin suggests the murder was motivated by feelings of intense betrayal because two of the four accused had previously had sex with Araujo.
He likens it to a crime of passion. Lawyers for the accused share this assessment; they argue that the trauma of discovering Araujo’s dick provoked the slaying, and that the punishment should be more lenient than for murder, and certainly not harsher, as the hate factor could make it.
The clearest cut hate crime scenario is the pack of young boys who go out looking for a target from an identifiable group. The crime is premeditated; the victim chosen at random from amongst the hated group.
Araujo was known to the accused, which makes Levin suspicious. Fair enough. But his reasoning reeks of homosexual panic, pled by fagbashers who beat or kill gay men who, they claim, have made a pass at them. The trauma of the come-on overwhelms them, they assert.
Similarly, the St Lawrence market hothead could plead that he doesn’t seek out gay men to harass, but that the sight of one couple’s affection drove him into a manly rage. Why do we validate the wounded pride of straight men who think beatings or murder an appropriate response to any brush with homosexuality?
The brutality of the Araujo crime is most disturbing. The betrayed men did not have a stern talk with Araujo. Not a shouting match. Not a fist fight. Allegedly, they whacked her in the head with a soup can, a skillet and a shovel.
They may not have gone out hunting for a transgendered woman to kill. But there seems little doubt they killed her because she was transgendered.
Maybe hate isn’t the right word to describe what they felt for her. But the severity of the violence suggests they had complete contempt for the victim. Someone worthless, subhuman, disposable. Is that better than hate?
Surely these men are to blame for thinking so little of Araujo’s gender- indeterminate existence. But not entirely. The revulsion so many feel for gay, lesbian and transgendered people is allowed to ferment unchecked by individual communities and by society at large.
It is hypocritical to churn out bigots and then punish them for their bigotry.
As Toronto school board trustee Rick Telfer tells Xtra in the next item, we need to start educating kids about prejudice early. When it comes to queers, we rarely do. And religious conservatives fight tooth and nail to keep queer- oriented curriculum out of schools. Meanwhile, an unholy alliance – the Vatican and the Congress Of Islamic States – is currently putting the kibosh on a UN anti-discrimination resolution because it includes queers.
Our society is incapable of actively asserting respect for our basic humanity. This is perhaps the most severe crime perpetrated against queers, whether you call it a hate crime or not.
David Walberg is Publisher for Xtra.