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Every year, the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes brings the Response to Hate Conference to Lansing, and a slew of law enforcement officials, students, nonprofit representatives, lawyers and concerned citizens meet to discuss and learn about hot topics and ways to combat hate crimes in Michigan and beyond.
On Sept. 16, the conference was held again, and the surprising focus of the day? Protecting LGBT citizens.
Although hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity or gender expression are always included in hate crimes discussions, last October’s passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act pushed the issue to the forefront of the minds of everyone interested in preventing, prosecuting and educating the public about hate.
It was heartening to hear presenters and participants alike nod their heads in agreement that yes, it’s important for our country to protect people from anti-LGBT hate crimes and yes, we as a society recognize and respect that fact.
But perhaps most impressive was the fact that a high-up representative of our federal government was at the conference, discussing his personal vested interest in prosecuting LGBT hate crimes.
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice Tom Perez was the keynote speaker for the day, and he spent much of his time at the podium discussing both the importance of the newest hate crimes act and the federal government’s drive to protecting and serving LGBT citizens.
“I prosecuted a lot of folks, and I refer to the term “equal opportunity bigot” – they hate African Americans, they hate Latinos, they hate Jews, the hate Muslims, they hate everyone who is different, including people who are gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual,” Perez told conference participants. “There is nothing worse as a prosecutor than looking someone in the eye and saying, ‘Your son or daughter has been the victim of a brutal gay-bashing incident, and there’s not a darn thing we can do about it, because we lack the jurisdiction.’
“But now, the good news is that we are here and we can help and we are helping.”
It cannot be stated emphatically enough that the Shepard and Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act was not simply a token law passed to say, “Look! Here, we did something!” but a very real commitment to including LGBT people in the equation when it comes to fighting hate crimes.
The federal government wants to help, and LGBT hate crimes victims – nay, the entire LGBT community, victimized or not – should know that this venue to justice is there for them, even if their community or local law enforcement are not.
Moreover, Perez and his team – along with the people at MIAAHC – are working to ensure that community organizations and local police departments, which are often the first to hear about a hate crime, are properly trained not only to contact federal attorneys for anti-LGBT hate crimes cases, but to simply respect LGBT people and to build bridges so that victims feel safe enough to come forward.
It’s so wonderful to know that the highest office in our country is on our side when we are victimized, hurt or killed; that crimes against us will not go unnoticed. It’s reassuring to us as LGBT people, and to our community overall.