Advancing Equality Day

Many believe that a crime against a protected minority warrants no greater punishment than a crime against any other person. I believe this to be true as well. The problem, however, is all too often a crime against a protected minority is punished less severely not more.

Even though the legal definition of “hate crime” normally means a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person. Some jurisdictions don’t have local hate crime laws. That doesn’t mean that hate crimes don’t exist. I take it a step further and define a hate crime as a crime that is generally tolerated by the larger community because the victim belongs to an oppressed class of people.

All too often the crime doesn’t stop after the call to police is made. Many times that’s when the worst violations start. Just ask 25 year old lesbian Laura Gilbert. Earlier this year she accompanied a straight friend to a local karoke bar in Opelika, AL. Upon leaving she was accosted and beaten severely by no less than twelve patrons because she was gay. Her friend called 911, but when the police arrived Gilbert was the one arrested. In our own community, after reporting threats of arson by a neighbor, Carol Ann and Laura Stutte now have a pile of cinders where their dream home once stood while the suspected arsonist sits comfortably in her own home.

In Tennessee, if the local police don’t investigate, victims have no real recourse but to call the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). Normally, local TBI officers are in the same office as local police and are friends with the same. If a hate crime ever is turned over to prosecutors, there is no guarantee that the case will be prosecuted effectively or at all.

The Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) will be hosting their annual Advancing Equality Day on the Hill in Nashville, TN on March 1st. This is an opportunity for members of the LGBT community and their allies to visit and speak with their representatives about legislation that affects the gay and transgender community in Tennessee. It’s your opportunity to make sure that your voice is heard.

One piece of legislation that TEP wants to bring attention to is HB0188/SB0314 which adds as an advisory enhancement factor to sentencing when defendant intentionally chose victim of crime based on gender identity or expression. In other words, this bill would add “gender identity or expression” to Tennessee’s existing “Hate Crime Law”.

Unfortunately, to call §40-35-114 of the Tennessee Code Annotated a “Hate Crime Law” is misleading at best. Unlike other state hate crime laws, Tennessee does not provide additional resources for investigation or prosecution. In truth, the distinction of “hate crime” can only be applied by the judge after the trial during the sentencing phase. The thought here is that the judge might believe that additional sentencing is warranted because of an inadequate investigation or prosecution that is bias against the victim.

Successfully adding “gender identity or gender expression” to the existing law will be a great symbolic victory, but if we are ever going to stop hate crime in this state we each need to change our community first.