Why hate crimes are not the same as other crimes.

As I surfed the web tonight, I was greeted by an article attacking Labour’s plans to eradicate homophobic bullying. Although not a fan of the Labour Party (I think it’s lost its way), I was mildly refreshed at the commitment to tackle this form of prejudice, given that Labour has spent a good amount of effort pandering to more shall we say ‘socially conservative’ voters (anti-immigration bigots), in recent months.

To my surprise, the article wasn’t an examination of whether Labour’s proposals are workable, but a chance for the author, William Dove, to engage in a tirade against the notion of what he calls a “so-called hate crime” and condemn us all for having the audacity to give special treatment to victims of homophobic, racist, or otherwise prejudicial abuse.

For Dove, tackling homophobic bullying is “lazy and wrong” for the following reasons, and I hope to debunk each in turn, but the long and short of Dove’s argument is that hate crimes should be extended to any victim of a crime, and we shouldn’t take into account the prejudicial motivations of the attacker(s) when bringing them to justice.

1. “What these people forget though is that bullying in schools happens to all kinds of people and it is equally terrible for all victims.”

This is not a competition, and nobody disputes that being victimized and bullied in school is a traumatic experience for any victim. What we can and must do, however, is recognize that some motivations for bullying are worse than others. If I bully you because I don’t like your hair colour, I am not challenging the core of your being, or your chosen identity, and I am not adding to discriminating laws, attitudes or practices that all people with your hair colour face. If I bully you because I don’t like gay people, I am targeting an embedded part of your identity, personality, and life, and I am adding to a culture of anti-gay abuse that has killed people, marginalized people, and ruined countless people’s lives.

The difference may not be clear to a heterosexual person (I highly suspect William Dove is a heterosexual), but the difference is clear to those of us who have been attacked on the basis of our sexuality. Not only is it an attack on the core of our beings, it is adding to an already existing culture of prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance. When somebody bullies somebody else for being gay, they are adding to this pre-existing set of awful conditions upon which we so often have to fight against.

There is also evidence to suggest that LGBT people are more likely to experience depression and other mental illnesses, are more likely to self-harm, and are more likely to commit suicide, in part because of the discrimination and bullying they face in places like school. So in essence, while nobody wants to devalue any person’s experience with bullying, we must recognize that gay people often experience a worse kind of bullying than other people because the evidence tells us that it’s more likely to ruin their lives. After all, can you think of a discriminatory law which target’s a person’s hair colour? Can you think of an instance when a person with a certain hair colour was murdered because their hair was that colour?

2. “It may be a little vulgar to put it like this, but does anyone believe that in his final moments Stephen Lawrence was thinking it would be preferable his attackers were black rather than white. Would it have been less bad if he’d been murdered by black people?”

Well, if Stephen Lawrence was white, he wouldn’t have died in the first place. Hate crimes are called such because without the prejudicial motivation, they would never have occurred at all. It is both a crime, and a crime that would never have happened if the victim was straight or white.

Stephen Lawrence was too busy being murdered for his skin color to believe anything in his final moments. What distinguishes his murder from other murders is that he was killed because his attackers did not like a part of his core being, namely his skin tone.

Hate crimes are called hate crimes because they involve a particularly pernicious victimization and demonization of the victim that is not found in other instances of abuse or bullying. Lawrence was killed because he was black, and we must recognize that factor when we bring racist or homophobic killers to justice.

3. “When Tristram Hunt says he wants to “eradicate homophobic bullying” and when politicians say they want tougher penalties for Hate Crimes they are devaluing the suffering of countless victims of hatred who are cursed with being conventional.”

Being conventional is not a curse. What some gay people wouldn’t give to appear to be heterosexual and blend in with the crowd. Indeed, many do, and studies suggest that staying in the closet has negative mental health effects. This argument is drastically akin to the “What about men?” line that anti-feminists so often reel out. How are victims of hatred devalued when all these proposals will do is recognize that the motivations for some crimes are more heinous than others? These proposals do not introduce shorter sentences for non-hate crime offenders, do they? No they do not. This is not about reducing the status of victims of non-prejudicial bullying, it is about raising victims of prejudicial bullying to the same level, and pursuing justice for them with the same passion!

We can provide special provisions for those who suffer abuse due to embedded prejudice without being detrimental to those who are bullied for other reasons. As stated above, this is not a competition. It’s not as if tackling homophobic bullying somehow makes schools ignore conventional bullying. The truth is that homophobic bullying is more widespread, and more heinous because it adds to a culture of homophobia which is extremely damaging.

A comprehensive counter-bullying policy must include homophobic bullying because without including it, you are telling children that their sexuality is never a factor in the abuse they receive. This is akin to denying that homophobic bullying even exists, which the article comes close to doing a few times. It is simply wrong to suggest that being bullied or killed due to your sexuality or race is the same as being bullied for having glasses or a certain hair color.

In short, this article is a facile attempt to pretend neutrality whilst subtly denouncing victims of homophobic bullying as whiners, as privileged individuals who are met with more care and concern when they come forward about their bullying. That simply isn’t the case. I hope I don’t need to remind you that young gay people remain one of the most disenfranchised groups in the UK and around the world.

What William Dove does in this article is devalue people’s experiences of their own sexuality and race to the point where they’re no more noteworthy than somebody’s choice of clothes. I think they are more noteworthy.

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