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U.S. House passes hate crimes bill
Activists hail ‘historic’ vote on gay, trans-inclusive civil rights measure
By ELIZABETH WEILL-GREENBERG
Friday, September 16, 2005 - Washington Blade
The U.S. House of Representatives unexpectedly approved a bill Wednesday that includes a hate crimes provision inclusive of protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, marking the first time a trans-inclusive measure has passed either house of Congress.
Some gay rights activists had feared that adding transgender language to a hate crimes bill would doom the measure.
“It shows unequivocally that those that thought Congress couldn’t pass a trans-inclusive bill were just wrong,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “I don’t know of a single vote we lost because it was trans inclusive.”
Lawmakers voted to amend the Children’s Safety Act by adding what was known as the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would extend federal hate crimes laws that cover crimes motivated by race, color, religion and national origin to include crimes based on actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity.
The hate crimes amendment was co-sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). The amendment passed Wednesday 223 to 199; the full bill later passed overwhelmingly.
“Special recognition needs to go to Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi for their leadership,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. HRC singled out Baldwin for her work as well.
Frank has been outspoken in his opposition to adding transgender protections to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would outlaw workplace bias on the basis of sexual orientation. But he has championed inclusion on the hate crimes measure as more feasible politically.
Most representatives voted along party lines, though 30 Republicans voted for it and five Democrats voted against it, according to HRC.
A hate crimes bill has passed the Senate three times before and the House has held two procedural votes in favor of gay-inclusive hate crimes legislation in the past, according to Christopher Labonte, HRC’s deputy political director. But every time, the measure has been killed by GOP Congressional leaders during conference negotiations between the two houses of Congress.
The current hate crimes bill in the Senate, co-sponsored by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), does not explicitly include protections based on gender identity.
“This is the first time an explicitly written transgender inclusive bill has been passed by the House or the Senate,” Labonte said. “It’s amazingly historic.”
The Task Force also applauded the vote.
“Never before has the House of Representatives voted to protect transgender people in any way,” Foreman said in a statement.
“For the first time the House voted to extend protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans in a meaningful way,” Foreman said. “What people have been saying for years is it would be impossible to pass legislation that was explicitly transgender inclusive. Today’s vote shows that is false.”
“It’s even more remarkable it occurred first in the House, which is more conservative than the Senate,” he added.
Some gay rights activists were troubled by the bill the hate crimes amendment was attached to — the Children’s Safety Act, which has raised civil liberties concerns among some.
Keisling said the hate crimes amendment was attached to a “very, very troubling” act.
“Parts of the bill are really bad,” she said.
Foreman said his organization was also concerned about the underlying bill. For example, he said, one provision requires all states to set up sex offender registries.
“In some states, public lewdness is a sex offense,” he told the Blade. “Public lewdness laws are disproportionately and unfairly enforced against gay men in cruising areas.”
Congresswoman Melissa Hart (R-Pa.) said the measure was designed to protect children from sex offenders, who have an unusually high rate of recidivism.
“There are over 100,000 sex offenders who have failed to register in communities as they are required to do under existing law,” Hart told the Reuters news service. “They are currently living and working in our communities. Many could be residing near schools or playgrounds.”
Reuters reported that the Bush White House supports the underlying bill, and issued a statement praising it for “a strong, comprehensive approach to addressing crimes, especially sex crimes, against children.”
Labonte said that HRC did not have a position on the Children’s Safety Act. He added that the sudden action by the House took some by surprise. Labonte said that HRC was aware on Tuesday that the measure could come to a vote.
“Did we expect it a week ago? No,” Labonte said. “Amendable vehicles in the House are very rare,” he said. “When presented with that opportunity, our congressional champions went for it.”
The Children’s Safety Act also calls for the creation of a national DNA database of anyone arrested or detained by a federal agency, according to Jack King, public affairs director for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The act also eliminates federal review for prisoners who are convicted in the killing of someone under the age of 18, he said, calling it one of its worst provisions. Under the Children’s Safety Act, in cases where a defendant is not guilty, once he or she has exhausted the state courts, the only avenue left is executive clemency from the governor, he said.
How they voted