Trans woman of color, fellow advocates address State Senate

Kendall Stephens testified in front of the State Senate Majority Policy Committee. (Screenshot: PA Senate)

The Pennsylvania Senate Majority Policy Committee held a public workshop discussion on expanding hate crime laws in Pennsylvania to include gender identity, sexual orientation and people with disabilities. The meeting was held at the request of Sen. Tom Killion (R-Chester/Delaware). LGBTQ+ activist Kendall Stephens, a trans woman of color, was among the community advocates to address the senators. The meeting was streamed live and recorded on the Pa. Senate Majority Policy Committee website.

On Oct. 15 in West Chester, Pa., Sen. Killion and Senate Majority Policy Committee Chairman David Argall (R-Berks/Schuylkill) were joined by Republican Senators Camera Bartolotta, Mario Scavello and Pat Stefano, and Republican Representatives Thomas Murt and Chris Quinn. 

Community members who made the case for the expansion of Pennsylvania hate crime laws included LGBTQ advocate Brett Burman, Pennsylvania Youth Congress Executive Director Jason Landau Goodman, Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, Executive Director of the Arc of Pennsylvania Sherri Landis, Board President of the Arc of Chester County Matt Holliday, Executive Director of the Arc of Chester County Jeanne Meikrantz, Director of Development of the Arc of Chester County Karen DiVincenzo and Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia Shira Goodman. 

Killion opened the discussion by stating that he is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 444, which he wrote following an attack of a man with cerebral palsy in Chester County. The man was attacked specifically because of his disability. 

“Crimes motivated by racial or religious prejudice, sexual orientation, gender expression or physical abilities are particularly abhorrent,” Killion said in the meeting. “I believe we must stand in clear support of those targeted for violence because of their personal characteristics or traits.” 

The first to address the group was Ryan, who talked in part about how the fear and isolation felt by the victim of a hate crime ultimately leaves lasting scars on the surrounding community. She illustrated this with a story of her first assistant, Mike Barry, who dealt with a high-profile case in 2014 in which three people attacked a gay couple in Philadelphia purely because of their sexual orientation. 

“As Mike said back then, the attack damaged the psyche of the city,” Ryan told the group. “That is what hate crimes do to neighborhoods and communities.”

Sen. Killion asked Ryan and Stollsteimer how the amendment of the state hate crime law would impact prosecution of such crimes, “so us lay folks can understand why this is so important,” he said.

“If we were able to charge ethnic intimidation in the case that we talked about with the individual with cerebral palsy, we could charge ethnic intimidation that would be one grading higher than the assault itself,” Ryan answered. “If it was charged as a simple assault as a misdemeanor in the second degree, then we could charge it as ethnic intimidation as a misdemeanor in the first degree and get up to five years of additional penalties that would run potentially consecutive to that underlying crime.”

When it was Stephens turn to speak, the LGBTQ leader told stories of the abuse and discrimination she has faced throughout her life because of her trans identity. 

“I remember being 11 years old and being dragged from my school to a park by a group of my peers so they can beat the gay out of me,” Stephens said. “My mother, who was transphobic, still is, homophobic, still is, used to beat me with anything she could find. I suffered. I was reduced to living in the silence of shame. But ultimately my mother was unsuccessful in beating whatever it was out of me that she thought should not be there.” 

She continued by sharing her experiences living in foster homes, experiencing homeless for a period of time, and being badly beaten again when she initially went to college at 19. However, she also talked about taking control of her life and living outwardly as a trans woman, how she eventually went back to school at Community College of Philadelphia, and how she graduated at the top of her class. She is now pursuing a degree in public health and social work at Temple University. 

Stephens also brought up the recent hate-fueled attack against her in her home this past August. The first police officers on the scene failed to take her case seriously even though she was visibly bleeding. With the support of her teenage goddaughters in mind, who witnessed her attack, Stephens also addressed the fact that bigotry is a learned mentality.  

“That’s probably some of the most powerful testimony I’ve ever heard in all my years in the House and Senate,” Argall said to Stephens in the meeting.

“It felt empowering to be able to not just tell my story, but to represent my entire community and be able to have individuals that knew nothing about me, knew nothing about the trans experience, look me in my eye and say, ‘you touched me,’” Stephens told PGN. 

All of the speakers at the meeting had the same goal — to advocate for the inclusion of mental and physical disability, gender identity and sexual orientation in Pennsylvania’s hate crime law.

“Hate crime laws are of course a reflection of society’s values, the belief that criminal acts are especially heinous when motivated by hatred of certain personal traits, like race,” Burman said to the group. “Which groups or traits are covered, which groups you as lawmakers protect, is also a statement of our values, one made to all Pennsylvanians and especially our youth.”

Landau Goodman addressed two outlooks on hate-fueled violence.  

“First, hate-based violence does not occur in a vacuum,” he said in the meeting. “And second, hate crimes protections alone will not end the cruelty of this violence…. Our communities and the General Assembly have the duty to take actions that promote a society which provides equal opportunity and equal protections for all.”

In addition to echoing the statements of her colleagues, Shira Goodman shared some national and local statistics on hate crimes from the FBI annual hate crimes statistics report. Of the 67 hate crimes reported in Pennsylvania in 2018, 7.5% were driven by sexual orientation prejudice. From 2015-2018, hate crimes driven by sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability comprised 14.1% of all hate crimes. Trans women of color are particularly susceptible to hate-fueled violence. 

“Put another way, 14.1% of all hate crimes reported by the Pennsylvania state police during that time period were crimes that were not covered by Pennsylvania’s hate crimes laws,” Goodman said. “To answer some of the questions that you asked earlier about prosecution, I think the expansion of these laws would result in charges and prosecutions.”