The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Act was signed into law in October of 2009; it was the first national hate crimes legislation to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, and is one of the most measurable things the Obama administration has done for the gay community. Hundreds of people worked for more than a decade to see it pass; as the name suggests, the hope was that it would mean the end of the cultural era where a young man could be killed by beating and exposure and then have his attacker’s claims of ‘gay panic’ taken at all seriously. Few would deny that its passage was a huge step forward for us as a country. There may be an unforeseen problem, though: what if people just don’t obey it?
Laura Gilbert, a 25-year-old openly gay woman in Alabama, was attacked by roughly a dozen people outside a straight bar in Opelika, AL.
Gilbert and her friend from high school, Sheila Siddall, say they went there to sing karoake. “As soon as we walked in the bar, I felt uncomfortable,” Gilbert said. “I felt everybody staring at us, but you know, it was her birthday, I didn’t want to ruin it for her.” Gilbert and Siddall say as they were about to leave, a woman confronted them and started to fight with them. The fight grew to include about a dozen people, including two men, and moved outside, according to the women.
When a police officer arrived on the scene, Gilbert was the only one arrested. Out of the dozen people at the scene, many were intoxicated and all of them were engaged in “disorderly conduct,” the offense with which she was charged, but Gilbert says that she wasn’t even interviewed by police. The only statement taken down was from her attackers. The police say this is because she was too intoxicated to give a statement, although they did proceed to take statements from other drunk people.
This action on the part of the police is puzzling. Although corrections from actual law enforcement officers are welcome, it seems like this behavior would only make sense if one lone lesbian went on a violent rampage against an unsuspecting group of people, which seems unlikely. Actually, even then this would be an irresponsible way to handle the incident. A fight by definition involves more than one person; why would the police report ever not include all accounts of what happened?
Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones says, however, “The arrest that took place was a result of a law enforcement officer actively and presently observing what he at that moment in time perceived to be a violation of the law.” Considering that witnesses agree that the fight was already over by the time any law enforcement arrived, this statement is less than clarifying.
If any of Gilbert’s story has even a grain of truth to it – which, given the law enforcement’s track record with marginalized groups like queers or people of color, seems very possible – then this is a blatant act of discrimination on behalf of the Lee County Sherriff’s Department. But is it just simple malice? Or is this about the fact that Sheriff Jones is insisting that while his deputies are trained to report hate bias in violent crimes, that this is definitively not what happened on Saturday night in Opelika? All state officials are required to comply with federal hate crimes legislation, even when it regards sexual orientation. But if the crime itself is documented in such a way that its hate bias is downplayed or ignored, or if it isn’t documented at all, then who’s to say whether the law is being obeyed or not?
Alabama’s state hate crimes legislation doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity as a protected class, and this wouldn’t be the first time creative police reporting had been employed to conveniently reshape the criminal history of a specific police department. (Granted, that example is in New York, not Alabama, but definitely well worth the read.)
Alabama doesn’t offer domestic partnerships. Alabama has a ban on same-sex civil unions and has both a constitutional amendment and law prohibiting same-sex marriage. The state’s Fair Housing Act doesn’t ban discrimination or gender identity/expression housing discrimination.
From Sweet Homo Alabama, the article from Out magazine declaring Alabama the worst place to be gay in America:
Anyplace else in 2004 America, gay people—and even some straight ones—would be shocked, outraged, and bellowing for justice if two gay men had been killed in less than two weeks. In Alabama we just numbly reassemble for another candlelight vigil on the marble steps of the bleached-white state capitol, right near the spot where Gov. George C. Wallace hollered, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.
On particularly awful occasions, like this double-murder summer, as many as 65 of us will show up. The few, the brave, the homo-bamians. We stand here wondering how many more of us are going to get burned like witches, struggling to keep the candle wax from dripping onto our hands and pants, glancing nervously over our shoulders whenever a muffler-free pickup truck goes roaring by on its five-foot tires. You just know they’re going to holler something creative like “Faggots burn in hell!wp_posts You just hope they’re not hanging around waiting when you walk back to your car.
At Alabama-based QueerVoice.net, Alabama resident Zach writes: “I’m not surprised by this at all. Opelika is home to many an ignorant bigot. Gilbert is lucky she made it out alive.”
Generalizations like this are dangerous, of course — for example, Mobile is considered a bit of a gay and literary mecca, and these queers have a really cute farm — and certainly Alabama’s population are not all homophobes — perhaps many of you, even, are from Alabama and clearly love gay people! But when discussing law enforcement officials — that is, people employed by the state government itself — what’s on the books is a reflection of the institution’s homophobia, even if it doesn’t necessarily indict any of its citizens.
The story here is, firstly, the unconscionable violence against an unarmed woman for no apparent reason other than her trying to inhabit public space and also being a gay person. The story is also the unforgivable and seemingly intentional failure of law enforcement to do their jobs in protecting her or investigating her case.
But the story is also larger; it’s about how we try to make progress as a community and as individuals, and about how we look to things bigger than ourselves for change, and ultimately end up coming back to what’s right in front of us. The passage of national hate crimes legislation that includes gay, lesbian, bi, queer and trans people is huge. But that’s just the means towards a larger end.
On the ground, it’s still people out there talking to people, people with their own stories and beliefs and backgrounds. When everyone is drunk and punches are thrown, things can get a bit chaotic. No legislation can change the fact that Laura Gilbert felt uncomfortable the minute she entered the bar, or reassure anyone that the officers at the scene did the right thing.
What we achieve in Washington may eventually help to change our schools and towns and city councils and workplaces, but that day is not today. But we also need to be working from the bottom up in our own neighborhoods and families and local police departments.
Because the Matthew Shepard Act and a hundred more acts just like it won’t make any difference at all if no one makes sure they’re also put into practice. Just ask Laura Gilbert.