October 27, 2009

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, South Carolina 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 no choice.

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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 an affront to free speech that 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. Rightly notes South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, there are “fundamental problems with any federal hate crimes legislation. The Rule of Law requires opposition to this idea that we treat crimes differently.”

Not that I don’t understand the rage of homosexuals or racial and religious minorities who sometimes feel like targets of violence. In 2002, my best friend was assaulted for verbally defending the honor of a woman. For his chivalrous deed, my friend, who was far too drunk to defend himself (everyone was intoxicated) had his head mercilessly pounded into the sharp corner of a steel toolbox, coming dangerously close to severely and permanently damaging his eye. The perpetrator was a perennial loser, mad at women, himself and god-knows-what-else, filled with enough “hate” to take on the whole world. At the time, if someone had put a bullet in his head I wouldn’t have lost much sleep over it.

One can only imagine the rage of Mathew Shepard’s family, his friends and 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 – 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 born of evil-intentions and producing gruesome results, are some crimes less 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 homosexual and minority members’ particular identities make them especially vulnerable, requiring special legal protection. One could just as easily argue that the colossal disparity between black-on-white violent crime versus white-on-black violent crime makes white Americans especially vulnerable, and yet no one advocates for special legal protection for whites. Some might argue that existing hate crime laws allow for this, but the instances of anti-white hate crimes being prosecuted compared to anti-minority hate crimes, is beyond laughable and 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 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 woman 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.

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