You know why I despise the whole idea of hate crime legislation? Because it validates the repellant idea that some victims are more important, more valued, more deeply mourned or cared for than others.
You have two people: one white, straight and Christian, and the other black, gay and Muslim. They are both attacked. They both bleed the same color of blood. But if we can somehow delve into the mind of the attacker and determine a bigoted motive, then that white, straight Christian life is measured by a different metric, and the sentence meted out to his attacker is less draconian than the heavier sentence imposed on the member of an artificially protected class. And yet, the victims’ wounds are identical.
That’s why I despise hate crime legislation, which forces us to become both mind-readers (“Does he really hate gays?!”) and arbiters of human worth based on irrelevant factors.
That goes for victims of domestic abuse, too, even though our desire for equality (pay equity, women in combat, reproductive parity) hasn’t changed our archaic, ossified and extremely dangerous ideas about just who has the right to compassion when a partner becomes homicidal.
Case in point, the recent murder in Philadelphia of Terrell Bruce, a young man of rare and exceptional promise. At the age of 33, he had already started his own successful real estate business, was heavily involved in his community and was the founder and president of the Nathanial M. Kirkland Foundation, formed in memory of his younger brother who drowned during a service mission to Guatemala in 2009. Tragically, police say his life was cut short late last month when a woman who has been called his ex-girlfriend allegedly shot a bullet through his brain at close range during an argument.
According to a 2014 report issued by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, one in seven men over the age of 18 have been victims of “severe physical violence” by an intimate partner during his lifetime, and one in 10 has been raped, assaulted or stalked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted in a 2010 report that one in four men will be the victim of domestic violence in his lifetime. This could either be from women, or from other men when it’s a same-sex relationship. These are staggering statistics.
And yet we are still incapable of dealing with victims as if gender were irrelevant. Joe Biden touts his work on the Violence Against Women Act, which is indeed a noble achievement, but the name itself should be a signal that we still don’t give men the respect they deserve. Why can’t we call it the Violence Against Persons Act? Why is there such an insistence on depicting women as victims and men as the aggressors when the statistics so clearly and potently debunk that myth?
A couple of years ago, we were all obsessed with the alleged wave of date rape sweeping college campuses. Even after the debacle at the University of Virginia, where Rolling Stone engaged in a negligent and libelous crusade against a fraternity by allowing a journalist to regurgitate the lies of a coed, we still have a single-minded focus when we talk about sexual assault and domestic violence.
This past election cycle, we crucified Donald Trump for making admittedly misogynistic comments about women and acted as if everyone with a vagina was in grave physical danger. It bordered on the hysterical.
This both frustrates and infuriates me because it distracts us from real cases of abuse. As an immigration lawyer, I have dealt with immigrant men who have been emotionally, physically and sexually battered by their U.S. citizen wives and girlfriends. Ironically, I’ve been able to get them legal status in the United States by using the Violence Against Women’s Act, which, despite its flawed name, is a powerful tool. I’ve also had experience in my personal life with abusers and victims. I’m not free to tell the stories and the details because they are not mine to tell, but suffice it to say, I know how lives can be shattered and destroyed by abuse. And believe me, the ones who are bleeding and battered are not always women. Not by a long shot.
That’s why I am outraged by our inability to look at a pretty, educated woman and hold her to the same critical standard that we hold ugly, illiterate men, or even preppy, college-educated frat boys. I don’t give a damn where Martina Westcott went to school or what her dreams were. This is not a sordid Lifetime movie where the heroine ends up triumphant after the last commercial break.
This is real life, and these are real life victims. Terrell Bruce was achingly real. And if that doesn’t move you, look at the numbers: Gender is virtually irrelevant when it comes to domestic violence. If we have any hope of stopping this horrific upward trend, we have to acknowledge the true nature of the crime and those who commit it. We have to change our ideas about abuse and encourage men to come out of the shadows and ask for the help they so richly deserve. Our focus on women guarantees that nearly 40 percent of domestic violence victims will remain silent.
That, to me, is the real hate crime.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.