Shepard murder prompts push to pass state hate crimes law

The brutal beating death of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming has prompted at least one group of Pennsylvanians to call on the state legislature to change the laws that deal with crimes motivated by hate.

The Statewide Pennsylvania Rights Coalition has called for the immediate expansion of the commonwealth’s hate crimes law to include crimes motivated by victims’ sexual orientation and gender identity.

SPARC leaders were joined by state legislatures, media representatives and leaders of the National Organization for Women, the Anti-Defamation League and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Coalition at a news conference in Philadelphia Oct. 21. The coalition announced it is lobbying lawmakers to pass two bills introduced over a year ago by Rep. Lita Cohen (R-Montgomery): House Bill 730, which would amend the state hate crimes law to cover crimes committed based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation; and House Bill 731, which would require state police to collect information on crimes and incidents motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation.

State law already requires police to collect information on crimes and incidents motivated by race, color, religion or national origin.

“Every concerned citizen needs to call or write his or her state representative and state senator to urge fixing the hate crimes law now” said Stephen Glassman, co-chair of SPARC. “Both of these bills should be further amended to include gender identity as a protected class” he added.

Of the 41 states that have hate crimes laws, Pennsylvania is one of 20 states in which the law does not address sexual orientation and/or gender.

Gov. Tom Ridge has said he would sign a bill to add those protections if the legislature passes one. Both of Cohen’s bills have remained stalled in the House Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Jack Wagner (D-Pittsburgh) said he would introduce legislation that would make it easier to prosecute ethnic and other bias-related intimidation. Wagner’s proposed legislation offers protections beyond those of the bills currently in the Judiciary Committee and would expand current laws to include people targeted due to disability, ancestry, gender or sexual orientation.

Glassman noted that the phrase “actual or perceived sexual orientation” in Cohen’s bills would also cover heterosexuals who are mistakenly believed to be gay. The process of changing current law could begin with reporting Cohen’s bills out of committee or by amending bills on the floor of the House or Senate.

The Pennsylvania legislature is currently in recess and will return to Harrisburg Nov. 9.

“Just about every state lawmaker would probably tell you that he or she is against hate and violence. Here is a chance to do something about [it]… to be tough on crime,” Glassman said. “We are asking the people of Pennsylvania—straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered—to call and write their state representatives and senators as soon as possible to get sexual orientation and gender identity included in the hate crime law and include these crimes in state police reports. These should be easy votes for any lawmaker.” 

SPARC’s stated mission is to work to develop and seek passage of statewide civil rights legislation to benefit the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities in Pennsylvania. But Shepard’s murder has also galvanized the ongoing effort to amend hate crimes laws to include such rights, according to Glassman.

The coalition was originally formed as the Pennsylvania Civil Rights Coalition, which was initiated by the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force last year to seek further legislative action on Cohen’s bills. Glassman and SPARC co-chair Dr. Sue Rankin, a professor at Penn State’s University Park campus, took the coalition statewide in January of this year, kicking off the effort with a conference at Dickinsen College in Carlisle.

Glassman noted that SPARC’s move to go statewide was an effort to reach out to concerned individuals across the commonwealth, and to combine and strengthen efforts already underway in Pittsburgh, Erie, State College and Philadelphia.

Glassman specifically cited the “years of hard work” by the League of Gay and Lesbian Voters in Pittsburgh to move the hate crimes bills out of committee. “It is one of our goals to bring these efforts together on a statewide level.”

At a SPARC conference held in State College in October, new by-laws were adopted, and the organization’s mission was further defined and refined. Eight regions were identified statewide with plans made to hold town meetings in each region during February. Glassman said he hopes these “Know Your Rights” meetings will unify existing efforts among allied and diverse groups to effect legislation protecting sexual minorities through education and training. A rally to include all such organizations involved in the statewide collective effort is planned for Harrisburg sometime in March.

Glassman and Rankin noted that in addition to working effectively with state legislators, the coalition has made progress in other ongoing efforts:

! Statewide polling with regard to gender identity and sexual orientation, along with other sexual minority issues; the results of these polls are to be announced early next year

! Initiation of a “pledge project,” which would encourage and allow elected and appointed officials to go on record, stating specifically that they would not discriminate in hiring and promotional practices in their own workplace

! Promotion of an “endorsements project” to encourage major employers and celebrities to sign a letter of support for legislation protecting the rights of all people, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals

! Hosting skills-building workshops on lobbying, media relations, public speaking and political strategy free of charge to those interested

! Initiation of a “mayoral project” designed to encourage mayors across the state to join elected officials whose jurisdictions already have protections

! Initiation of a “bar owners project” to raise funds for the group’s efforts

! Implementation of a “student mobilization project” to involve activists on campuses throughout the commonwealth.

Glassman and Rankin both stressed SPARC’s determination to remain inclusive and to avoid “any negative or divisive efforts” by working to resolve any differences that arise as individuals and organizations face issues confronting the community.

Glassman told Out he is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion at the “Creating Change” conference taking place Nov. 11-15 in Pittsburgh.

For more information about the Statewide Pennsylvania Rights Coalition and its ongoing efforts to promote gay rights legislation, call Stephen Glassman at (717) 624-3339 or Dr. Sue Rankin at (814) 863-8415.