Op-ed: Yes, the Philly Attack Was a Hate Crime

Op-ed: Yes, the Philly Attack Was a Hate Crime

On the evening of September 11, 2014, on a street corner about six or seven blocks from my apartment in the Center City section of Philadelphia, a group of about a dozen individuals — composed of men and women — either took part or watched as a young gay couple was viciously beaten. The victims, two young gay males in their 20s, were left in a pool of blood. One was knocked unconscious and suffered a broken jaw that had to be wired shut.

Within hours of the Philadelphia Police Department releasing surveillance footage depicting the suspects, the nation watched as concerned citizens turned Internet sleuths tracked down the suspects and identified them. Several days later, Philadelphia district attorney Seth Williams indicted three individuals on various charges, including aggravated assault, simple assault, reckless endangerment of another, and conspiracy.

For me, for the victims, for countless LGBT people across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and perhaps most importantly for District Attorney Williams, this attack was absolutely a hate crime. Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania, it cannot be charged as such. Sexual orientation and gender identity or expression are not included in Pennsylvania’s hate-crimes statute.

Those who assault an individual because of that person’s race, color, religion, or national origin can be charged with a hate crime in Pennsylvania, and I believe they should be. If a Christian is assaulted because she is Christian, or a white person is assaulted because he is white, or a Canadian is assaulted because she is Canadian, a hate crime can be and ought to be charged. Hate crimes do more than inflict pain and anguish upon the immediate victims, but like acts of terrorism, they incite terror and fear in the hearts and minds of entire groups of people.

Some simple yet serious examples: burning a tree in the yard of your African-American neighbor is arson, but burning a cross there could likely be a hate crime. Spray-painting the word "Sunday" on your Jewish neighbor's garage door is vandalism. Spray-painting a swastika on their garage could be a hate crime. The victims haven’t changed, but the crime committed against them has.

Hate-crimes laws, or bias-motivated crimes laws, most commonly began as ethnic intimidation laws in the 1960s and '70s, and are often still referred to by that term. In the decades that followed, they were expanded to cover such characteristics as nationality, immigration status, gender, and religion. Then, beginning in the mid-1980s, some states began to add sexual orientation and eventually gender identity to their lists of covered traits in response to growing data surrounding attacks against these groups.

Today, 45 states have some kind of hate-crime laws on their books, and over a dozen are fully inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity. What these laws most commonly do is elevate the level of a crime or create a penalty enhancement that gives prosecutors additional tools when bringing cases. These laws also give judges and juries a greater ability to penalize these criminals.

Disappointingly, in fighting to expand Pennsylvania's hate-crimes law to include sexual orientation and gender identity as well as gender and disability, we have heard opponents say that "all crimes are based on hate" and that "special protections for the gay community" are wrong. I have even heard a legislator proclaim that we need to "stop creating special classes of victims.”

First, the simple truth of the matter is that hate is just one of many reasons that people commit crimes. Desperation, fear, opportunity, and economic gain are just a few.

Secondly, despite the lack of reporting that is incredibly problematic when it comes to LGBT hate crimes, the federal government reports that crimes motivated by animosity toward a person's sexual orientation rank second only to those motivated by race and notably ahead of crimes motivated by the victim’s religion.  

Moreover, despite the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act to address anti-LGBT violence at the federal level, the number of hate crimes in the United States has not decreased, due in large part to the fact that state governments are not addressing the issue. A 2012 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program found that hate violence has not decreased and that LGBT people of color, transgender people, and transgender people of color are disproportionately and dramatically impacted by the lack of these protections.

I believe that our laws are a reflection of our morals and our values. If we fail to protect kids at schools and allow bullies to get away with violence against their fellow students, how can we expect this will change when these bullies become adults? If we fail to prohibit workplaces from openly discriminating against LGBT people, how do we expect employees to behave any better when they are out for dinner or with a group of friends?

Brutal attacks like the one that happened in Philadelphia are exactly what happen when we fail to protect those most vulnerable to discrimination. The more we ignore the issue and assume that things have gotten better, the more we are shocked that incidents like this attack still occur.

I believe that hatred, bigotry, and violence have no place in Philadelphia or anywhere else in America. Our cities and states need legislation to protect LGBT people whether they are riding a school bus, putting up a framed picture of their spouse at work, or going to get a slice of pizza on the weekend.

Our state governments and the federal government have a moral responsibility to address hate crimes, and they remain complicit when they fail to pass hate-crime legislation that covers those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or even perceived as being so.

BRIAN SIMS is the representative for Pennsylvania's 182nd state House district and the first out candidate to be elected to the state's legislature. He is fighting to expand Pennsylvania's hate-crimes law to cover crimes based on gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability.