When openly gay college student Matthew Shepard was targeted, tortured, and murdered in 1998, the story made national headlines. Soon after, MTV sent a camera crew down to Charleston, S.C., searching for a redneck or two who might offer some insensitive remarks about homosexuals for their True Life series. They found one. Me.
I was a student at the College of Charleston and, as the lone conservative writer at the school paper, was asked to participate in the television tapings. I remember telling MTV I believed Shepard's murderers should receive the death penalty. I also told them, when prodded, that I believed homosexuality was "against God."
It's a comment I've regretted ever since.
My first regret stems from the blasphemous assumption that I could know the mind of God, and secondly, that I had portrayed gay men and women as somehow lesser children of that God. Despite my youthful ignorance, there is nothing more obvious to me today than the fact that the overwhelming majority of homosexuals are born gay. It is nature, not nurture, and certainly not choice.
But in a free society, what people choose to think about homosexuality should be their choice. The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act currently being pushed through Congress, which seeks to expand the definition of federal hate crime laws to cover homosexuals, is the criminalization of thought, pure and simple. It's bad enough that we already have federal laws that cover crimes motivated by racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice, which are also an affront to free speech and should be abolished. Battery, assault, and murder are horrible enough crimes on their own without attaching some special significance to what the perpetrator might think about his victim. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) rightly notes that there are "fundamental problems with any federal hate crimes legislation." He adds, "The Rule of Law requires opposition to this idea that we treat crimes differently."
Not that I don't understand the feelings of homosexuals or racial and religious minorities who sometimes feel like they are targets of violence. A few years back, a friend of mine was assaulted for verbally defending another friend. For his deed, my friend was beaten to a bloody mess, coming dangerously close to suffering permanent physical damage. The perpetrator had a criminal record and what some considered a history of angry behavior. In the opinion of some, he was mad at himself and the world. "Hate" indeed.
One can only imagine the anger and sorrow still felt by Matthew Shepard's family and friends, particularly those in the gay community who knew him. A loved one was taken by two emotionally dysfunctional men whose insecurities and personal shortcomings drove them to murder. No doubt, many would like to see Shepard's killers put to death, and it's an injustice this never happened. But not because Shepard was gay — but because he was an innocent human being who had done nothing to deserve his fate.
While murder is certainly worse than assault, is beating up a homosexual a worse crime than beating up my friend? If my friend were homosexual, should his assault take on an entirely new dimension? When violent crimes occur — each one born of evil intentions and producing gruesome results — are some more equal than others? For hate crime law advocates, their answer is an unqualified "yes!" Their logic is repulsive.
Advocates of hate crime laws argue that homosexuals and minority members are especially vulnerable to being assaulted because of their identities, and, as a result, require special legal protection. But for many, there is a perception that there is a noticeable disparity between black-on-white violent crime versus white-on-black violent crime, and they would be inclined to argue that as a group, white Americans are more vulnerable. Yet if such a disparity existed, would anyone dare advocate for special legal protection for whites? Some might argue that existing hate crime laws allow for this, but the idea that anti-white hate crimes would be prosecuted at the same high rate as anti-minority hate crimes is beyond laughable. No one seems to be clamoring for it.
Most violent crime is born of some sort of hatred, and examining motive is certainly crucial in any criminal investigation. But hate — for gays, minorities, women, chivalrous men — is still just a thought, and should not be itself a criminal action. Criminalizing the thought behind a violent act sets a dangerous precedent and gives special justice to special groups and lesser justice to victims of similar crimes who do not belong to those groups.
Stupid as it was, what I thought about homosexuality in 1998 should not have been a crime. A few weeks after the MTV special aired, I was standing in a King Street bar when a rather tough lesbian violently pushed me from behind, angry over my comments. Looking back, I'm surprised she didn't punch my lights out. That would have unquestionably been a crime. But not her opinion of me.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.