State of hate-crimes laws in Pennsylvania


Philadelphia is still reeling from the Sept. 11 gay bashing in which two gay men were brutally beaten by a group of young people. Both men went to the hospital with injuries, one with a broken jaw that needed to be wired shut. The police said the incident was preceded by disparaging remarks about their sexual orientation. After a nearly two-week investigation, three of the alleged 15 assailants were charged with simple assault, aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person and conspiracy. But, shockingly, hate crimes are missing among the charges listed.

Nationally in 2012, sexual orientation was the second-most prevalent hate crime behind race — yet, once again, we have no protections for the LGBTQ community in Pennsylvania. A hate crime is an act motivated by prejudice or bias. The criminality lies in the motivation behind the act and not the act itself. In Pennsylvania, the laws only protect people from crimes committed because of one’s real or perceived race, color, religion, national origin or ancestry. Thirty-one states have hate-crime protections for sexual orientation, while 28 cover gender and only 16 cover transgender/gender-identity.

What a lot of people do not realize is that Pennsylvania did at one point have hate-crime protections in place for the LGBTQ community. The state ethnic-intimidation statute was amended in 2002 to include sexual orientation, as well as gender identity and physical or mental disability, but a state court in 2007 struck down the expansion on procedural grounds, a ruling later upheld by the state Supreme Court the following year.

After the beating, our elected and appointed officials refused to stand by and do nothing. State Sen. Jim Ferlo, state Reps. Brian Sims and Brendan Boyle and Philadelphia Councilmembers Jim Kenney and Blondell Reynolds Brown are a few of several politicians who have led the charge to change the state of hate-crime laws in Pennsylvania. Boyle, who reintroduced a hate-crime bill over a year ago, said his legislation would pass if leadership in the Republican majority would allow it to come up for a vote, but that’s unlikely as the clock ticks down on this year’s session. Moreover, Ferlo, from Pittsburgh, publicly came out during a press conference where he urged his colleagues to get behind LGBT statewide hate-crime protections. He said he hasn’t kept his sexual orientation a secret but has never made a public declaration about it either. At one point during the press conference he said, “I’m gay, get over it. It’s a great life.”

Seeing as legislation passing during this session is unlikely and therefore statewide protections will have to wait several months to a year, leaders in Philadelphia have taken the matter into their own hands. Kenney and Reynolds Brown last week introduced a bill in City Council that would provide hate-crime protections for the LGBTQ community within our city limits.

Despite all of the positive momentum that has come from this incident, there are two aspects I find entirely unacceptable: That so few people were charged and that they weren’t, and never will be, charged with committing a hate crime.

There was also a question of whether the alleged assailants could have been charged under the federal hate-crime law. In 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded the existing United States federal hate-crime law to apply to crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, and dropped the prerequisite that the victim be engaging in a federally protected activity, although there remain a number of caveats that anti-LGBT hate crimes must meet.

Within days of the incident, Kenney wrote to the U.S. Attorney’s Office urging the Department of Justice to partner with the city’s District Attorney and police to investigate and charge the assailants under the federal law. But, as of yet, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has apparently not done so.

All I keep thinking is what gay people all over the Midwest, the South, in small towns and in rural areas are thinking, if something so reprehensible could happen in the most LGBT-friendly city in the United States.

That these three individuals will never be charged with a hate crime is inconceivable, but the nationwide awareness and the community support by individuals and politicians generated from this hateful occurrence outweigh that fact. Love will trump prejudice any day, and that has been proven time and again over the last few weeks.