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Why We Need A Strong, Gender Identity Inclusive Federal Hate Crimes Law

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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April 17, 2009

Some of you may be familiar with the brutal murder of 18-year-old Angie Zapata. Angie was killed in Greeley, Colorado, after a man she had met on the Internet and gone on a date with discovered that she was biologically male.

The man currently on trial for killing Angie is the first case in which a state’s hate crimes law has been used to prosecute the killing of a transgender person. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 11 states, as well as the District of Columbia, currently have hate crimes laws which are inclusive of gender identity. That leaves a pretty wide and expansive area of the country where no such protection exists, despite the fact that transgender people face well-documented and dangerous levels of bias-motivated violence and discrimination.

Congress will soon have the opportunity to pass a strong federal hate crimes law that protects both civil rights and free speech and association. H.R. 1913, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, makes several important changes in federal civil rights law. It would provide new federal authority for investigating and prosecuting criminal civil rights violations, while also including strong protections for speech and association. Specifically, the bill would remove existing jurisdictional obstacles to the federal government prosecuting certain violent acts based on race, color, national origin, and religion, and also create new authority for the federal government to prosecute certain violent acts based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.

As important as this new authority is for protecting civil rights, the ACLU’s support for this bill has been contingent on a specific provision that prohibits the use of evidence of a defendant’s speech or association unless specifically related to the crime. This provision would be the strongest protection for free speech in the entire federal criminal code.

This is a very worthy and important piece of legislation. While necessitated by horrible events like the murder of Angie Zapata, having the federal government add gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability to the existing hate crimes statute would send a very powerful message that such crimes of violent hatred have no place in our country.

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