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Will Amending Pennsylvania’s Hate Crime Law Actually Prevent Gay Bashing?

By Ann Pellegrini

Center City gay-bashing suspects (courtesy Philadelphia Police)
Center City gay-bashing suspects (courtesy Philadelphia Police)

On September 11, 2014, around 11pm, a gay male couple walking home through Philadelphia’s fashionable Center City was accosted and badly beaten by a group of 12 well-dressed white 20-somethings, both men and women, who shouted anti-gay epithets before and during the attack. Both victims ended up in the hospital, one of them beaten so badly he suffered broken bones in his face and had to have his jaw wired shut. The case has attracted a lot of attention both because the alleged perpetrators were so clean-cut and apparently well-to-do and included women and men—not the stereotype of who commits “hate crimes”—and for the way it was solved: via social media. After the police released street-side surveillance video showing a group of young people walking away from the crime scene, citizens of the twitter universe began circulating the videos, matching faces to Facebook updates, and eventually pointing the police to suspects. Three arrests have since been made of two men and one woman, Philip Williams, Kevin Harrigan, and Kathryn Knott, each of whom has been charged with two counts of Aggravated Assault, two counts of Simple Assault, two counts of Recklessly Endangering Another Person, and one count of Criminal Conspiracy.

"You Can Tell Just by Looking": And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and PeopleThere is no doubt that this was a gay-bashing. The victims were singled because they were gay. And in the wake of the gay-bashing, some local politicians, state legislators, and LGBT activists are seeking to expand Pennsylvania’s hate crime statute to include sexual identity, gender identity, gender, and disability. Pennsylvania’s current hate crime law—the “ethnic intimidation and institutional vandalism act”—was passed in 1982. It mandates increased charges and penalties for crimes motivated by prejudice against the victim’s “race, color, religion, or national origin.” Thus, someone charged with a second-degree felony assault could have the charge—and penalty upon conviction—bumped up to a first-degree felony if ethnic or racial prejudice were alleged as a motive for the assault.

In 2002, Pennsylvania legislators expanded the hate crime statute to include sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, and disability; but the amended law was struck down by a state court on a technicality due to the way the original law was amended. (The amended language was attached to an agriculture bill.) Advocates of an expanded hate crime law have been trying to reintroduce and pass the amended law ever since, so far without success. The events of September 11, 2014 have given a renewed push to the campaign.

But what, exactly, would amending the state law concretely accomplish? Adding sexual orientation or sexual identity to the named categories would come too late to bump up the charges against Williams, Harrigan, and Knott or to enhance their sentences if they are convicted. And it would most certainly come too late to prevent the assault and serious injuries suffered by the two victims of September’s gay-bashing. Advocates of the change are trying to change the future. They argue that the prospect of enhanced penalties would prevent future such crimes, and that amending the law to include sexual identity and gender identity would also send an important message that crimes against LGBT people just for who they are do not just injure the victims, they “terrorize” an entire community, in the words of Pennsylvania State Representative Brian Sims, the openly gay legislator and long-time LGBT advocate working to amend Pennsylvania’s hate crime law. According to this line of thinking, adding sexual identity and gender identity to the existing hate crime law thus sends an important message that LGBT citizens are equally valued and equally protected. These are all emotionally powerful arguments, but do they hold up on closer analysis? The short answer is no. For a longer answer, listen to this segment from Radio Times:




Ann-PellegriniOn September 25, Ann Pellegrini—co-author of two Beacon books, “You Can Tell Just By Looking” and 20 Other Myths About LGBT Life and People and Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance—appeared on WHYY in Philadelphia’s Radio Times, which devoted an hour-long segment a discussion of the gay-bashing incident and to the expansion of Pennsylvania’s hate crime law. Listen to the show to hear her powerful rebuttal of the arguments some LGBT advocates are making for this expansion.