Passage of Federal Hate Crimes Legislation 2009
On the occasion of the passage of federal hate crimes legislation, the Human Rights Campaign invited the Rev. Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, associate professor of practical theology at Brite Dvinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, to comment on the legislation's significance. Dr. Sprinkle offered the following reflections with the title, "The End of the Beginning: How the Passage of the Matthew Shephard Act Transforms Us."
Researching LGBT hate crimes for four years has changed my life. Now that the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act is imminent, I feel another sort of change coming: to my work, to the LGBTQ community, and to my country. For decades, families, loved ones, law enforcement officers, and social justice advocates have prayed for, labored for, and agitated for a federal law extending protection to queer folk victimized by anti-LGBT violence. Tens of thousands of Americans, straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender , have labored tirelessly for this result. Our well-practiced shoulders are again set to the task, and with one more great heave, the first major expansion of legal protection against physical harm for vulnerable Americans in the 21st century will make it across the finish line. The end of the beginning has come at last. No more than that, and no less.
The dead are beyond further physical harm. So many hundreds have died at the hands of the ignorant, the malicious, and the sincerely bigoted. Gay Charlie Howard drowned in Bangor, Maine. Lesbian Talana Kreeger, manually disemboweled in Wilmington, North Carolina. Navajo Two-Spirit youth, F.C. Martinez, Jr., brained with a 25-pound rock in a blind canyon in Cortez, Colorado. African American transwoman, Duanna Johnson, shot down in a Memphis, Tennessee alley. Pfc. Barry Winchell, murdered by a fellow soldier with a baseball bat at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on the suspicion that he was gay. And the archetype of them all, young Matthew Shepard, pistol-whipped into a coma and left to die, tied to the foot of a buck fence in Laramie, Wyoming. For every victim whose name is remembered, scores of anonymous others have died, their agonies unreported, their names forgotten.
What will change for all these victims of hate, once the Shepard Act becomes law? And, what about their families, lovers and spouses—what will change for them?
For the dead, the change will come subtly, like a gift of dignity. The Shepard Act is not only for the living. Those who have died at the hands of hatred will finally receive a measure of vindication. No longer will they be merely the debris of social history. Their stories will be told with renewed passion, and more and more people will want to know who they were. Their lives will take on a greater sense of meaning to the LGBTQ community, who will find encouragement to embrace these dead as their own—just as blacks, Jews, and other besieged peoples have embraced their fallen friends and family members. These LGBTQ victims have become my teachers in my quest to recover their stories and the meaning of their lives. I ask, today, that they also become your teachers. Remembering them will help all of us find new strength for justice.
For the families and loved ones of these victims, perhaps a measure of peace will come at last. Their loss, of course, is incalculable. Their pain is beyond reckoning. I have seen the furrows in their brows, the lingering sadness in their eyes. As Ryan Skipper’s mother Pat said to me, there is no closure for her and those like her. The change will come, I suspect, with a sense of honor, and a quiet assurance that their beloved will have not died in vain. When the Shepard Act finally passes, I will think first of all about the valiant witness of the mothers—women who never sought the spotlight, but who fought back tears to learn how to speak out for their children and for everyone else’s children. Signing day in President Obama’s office will be most of all for Judy Shepard, Pat Mulder, Elke Kennedy, Pauline Martinez, Denise King, Kathy Jo Gaither and everyone else whose flesh and blood have consecrated the moment of passage.
Those who believe in justice will feel the change, too. The LGBTQ community will be challenged to mature and take their place among communities of survivors, witnesses who understand that it takes hard work to make hope become real for everyone. At the stroke of a pen, the entire LGBTQ community will experience the greatest lift since the Stonewall Rebellion forty years ago. But that will not be all. The America I know and love will encounter change on the day the Shepard Act becomes law, too. Summoned by the angel of justice, the American people will face the challenge to make the promise of the Constitution come true for their transgender, gay, bi, and lesbian neighbors and friends.
Passage and signing the Matthew Shepard Act into law will not magically stop the killing. Record numbers of LGBTQ Americans, especially young transgender people of color, are dying violently all across the land. But the high water mark of hatred has been scotched with the stroke of a pen with President Obama’s signature on this historic bill. The end of the beginning of full equality for my people has come. And we who believe in the fullness of justice will not rest until it comes continue to preach, to pray, and to advocate until all of us our free to love without the threat of violence.