Hate Crimes, OUTrage and Privilege in Pennsylvania

Let me start with a very clear statement – the assault of two gay men in a Philadelphia neighborhood by a crowd of people was a terrible act of violence and I am very glad that they both survived. I’m also aware that this experience may resonate in their lives for a long time and my heart goes out to them as they recover.

I’m glad the community responded, using social media clues to track down the perpetrators and shining a light on the attitudes of people who break a human being’s jaw for being gay. Reading Kathryn Knott’s tweets is a sickening experience, but perhaps not for the reason you might expect – I was sickened thinking how many people read her racist, rude, and ignorant commentary on a daily basis without batting an eye.

I think that’s an important contrast here – a group of neighbors who used social media to help bring justice to survivors of a violent crime and a group of neighbors who witness Knott’s nasty conduct unfolding and did nothing. Apparently, if any one of those followers had simply reported her to her employer for posting patient information on social media – she would have been held accountable for her “attitude” long before a man ended up with his jaw wired shut.

As the perpetrators have been identified and arrested, a renewed interest in Pennsylvania’s Hate Crimes law has emerged. Current law does not include sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or disability. In fact, Pennsylvania has no single statewide civil right based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. At least not one that originated in our General Assembly. Second parent adoption and marriage equality were court cases. That doesn’t make them less real, but it does reflect on the lack of response from our elected leaders.  State Rep Brian Sims and State Senator Jim Ferlo are calling for the GA to take action on pending legislation. Philadelphia City Council is planning to enact their own ordinance.

I have mixed feelings about the efficacy of hate crimes law in deterring crimes of ethnic intimidation. In almost every incident of an assault in Pittsburgh, there are long-winded distractions about federal hate crimes that are based neither in fact nor a thorough grasp of the magnitude of that request. It is more about posturing and chest thumping than an informed response to the actual circumstances. That’s exhausting, reactive and feels more like vengeance at any cost rather than justice.

The underlying issue is the resistance of our elected officials to acknowledge and respond to the everyday lived experiences of LGBTQ residents of Pennsylvania. This plays out in the bottleneck approach to all legislation, including HB/SB 300 which extends non-discrimination protections to our community.  The real issue is that a few anti-LGBT legislators – and those who fund them – stand in the way. We have public opinion on our side, we even have the support of the Republican Governor. But we can’t do a damn thing about it.

But … I also can’t help but note that the fury and rage aimed at Harrisburg wasn’t present when Diamond Williams, a trans woman of color, was murdered and butchered into body parts in 2013. Or how about when Stacey Blahnik Lee, another trans woman of color, was murdered in 2010 – a crime that remains unsolved. Or the 2012 murder of Kyra Kruz, a white trans woman who was also murdered and whose case remains unsolved. The unexplained death of Nizah Morris in 2002 while in police custody is another twist in a murky and unsettling history of violence against trans women in Philadelphia. 

And that’s part of our lived reality, too – the “isms” that elevates an assault of two gay men to  the point where a State Senator comes out during a press conference and yet barely acknowledges these women who have been murdered. There’s no healing for them. There’s no recovery period or no chance for reparation. They are dead. Being dead is a worse outcome than your jaw being wired shut while the Twitterverse races to your side. It isn’t about comparing the victims and survivors of the crimes as comparing our responses.

The thing is – we can’t do much right now to budge the General Assembly, but we can take a look at our reactions. We can talk about the “p-word” (privilege) and acknowledge how it plays out in everything from legislative priorities to board appointments to how we view criminals. We can lobby for funding for programs that serve groups least likely to rally the Twitterverse. We can do so much to  acknowledge the lived lives of LGBTQ people in Pennsylvania and take action without waiting for the General Assembly.

I say that our different reactions is reflective of the problem we hope to solve with more hate crimes legislation and that’s why I don’t think it will work. As a community, we won’t talk about our internalized homophobia and transphobia. As a community, we won’t talk about racial privilege and social justice. Can we genuinely expect members of the General Assembly to act any differently than we do? Sometimes the truth is a bitter pill to swallow.

Returning to a point I made earlier, our resistance to talk about and challenge these things isn’t that different from the friends of Kathryn Knott who just turned a blind eye to her offensive and invasive tweets. All the tweets have revealed is something LGBTQ people experience every day – hate guised as jokes with a Greek choir that refuses to step into the storyline. I remember when I was hassled in previous workplaces and my coworkers would do nothing. They might try to comfort me privately, but they would not actually intervene. This is the lived reality for most of us. And while the price we pay in the workplace is hopefully less final than our actual lives, our failure as a community to take action when the most vulnerable among is wounded doesn’t make us much better than Knott’s friends.



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