Why does Indiana need a hate crime law?

Indiana failed to pass SB 344 this week. The so-called LGBT rights bill would have added sexual orientation, gender identity, and presumably amendments to protect transgender individuals in matters of housing, education, public accommodations, and finance. I say presumably because it seemed destined that even if the LGB portion passed through, the T was likely to be removed.

Instead, nothing happened. The Republican controlled Senate, through its super majority Republican caucus, killed the bill with almost no mention in the public. It was decided behind closed doors at the State House.

I don’t have to explain how un-surprised I am by that. It was never going to pass this year. Not after the amount of work done last year to pass the Religious Freedom bill. Even if something had passed, I think we all know Mike Pence wasn’t about to sign it. It would have died under his desk to keep it from wobbling.

This bill wasn’t really a hate crime matter, either. But I want to talk about why Indiana needs a civil rights ordinance like SB 344 and a clear hate crime clause for LGBT people.

It’s not because big business says they need it to attract talent. No one would ever consider moving to Indiana and wonder how we are on social issues. No one wonders that about any of the middle of the country. Indiana is no different than Tennessee, Illinois (lest Chicago), Missouri, Texas, Utah, Nebraska, or anything not New England or the west coast. Any thought that we might be somehow able to compete with those places for the kinds of Awesome-Sauce Jobs in tech and science fields are kidding themselves. That’s not Indiana’s bread-and-butter. Like the rest of the middle of the country, we’re in a race to the bottom. We’re the Wal-Mart to the coastal boutique department stores. We compete on price. We compete on slashing the heck out of everything, because it’s all we have at this point. This is still a state that makes almost all of its export money on agriculture, and our largest cash crop is timber. Anything we do is largely at the same scale and effort as every other state.

That’s not to say that’s entirely bad. But it does have costs. We pay for it in poor health, low incomes, low home and investment values, and in turn decreased opportunities for a safe retirement.

No, we don’t need a bill like SB 344 or a hate crime bill because religious people suddenly think Jesus will be mad if we do. We’d be better if he did because then religious people would call for all kinds of stuff just to speed up the second coming.

It’s because there is hate in this world. People hate things. People hate other people.

America’s hate crime laws were largely conceived as a response to the Klan. The notion being they were doing more than just harming people or property. They were attempting to destabilize communities, entire neighborhoods, and to send a message to an entire group of people. For the Klan, obviously, that’s historically been African Americans.

The notion of the hate crime law is, “You’re doing more than just committing murder. You’re attempting to terrorize a group of people. You’re trying to destroy entire communities.” That’s a harsher level of crime on top of an already heinous capital offense. Thus, hate crime laws were enacted to attempt to deter that further. It was a message from society back to the Klan that their beliefs are unacceptable. That your beliefs may be your beliefs and we can’t stop you from thinking like an asshole, but we can enact stiffer penalties because we know that what you’re doing is worse than “just” a murder.

This is the response that should be given when someone asks why we need hate crime laws. It’s because you’re committing an offense on top of an offense. No less than we’d treat a terrorist for committing a true act of terrorism against Americans.

It’s because you were trying to send a message. And we as a society, through our government, are sending one back.

Where the Federal Government enacts hate crime legislation, it applies only to cases where they have jurisdiction of course, but is a message and response that local authorities weren’t stepping up enough. While hard to believe in today’s political environment, there was a time when the Feds moved faster than a lot of states on these things. And I imagine that will continue to be true for states in the deep south.

This isn’t a huge burden. We have mechanisms in our investigative and judicial systems for determining hate crime, prosecuting it, and punishing people under law. Just as we do for people who commit crimes because they’re repeat offenders, use a specific kind of weapon (gun, car, etc.), have drugs, commit against a juvenile, or are mentally insane. Enacting hate crime legislation for the LGBT community is just another check in that system.

Enacting hate crime legislation in addition to protecting LGBT individuals from harassment, discrimination, and other abuses is society’s way of sending a message. It’s a message of, “You’re okay. We’ve got your back”.

And when you don’t enact legislation on that basis, you have sent another message, one that businesses fear: that we don’t care enough about you and this problem.

Because it is a problem. It will not go away. It hasn’t gone away for blacks in large swaths of Indiana in generations. So we’re kidding ourselves if we think gays and lesbians will magically be fine in the next 12 months.

Indiana’s inaction sent that message. Without bills like SB 344, things will largely carry on as they have. But it does impact people’s lives. It impacts the way the feel here in Indiana and the way people outside of Indiana feel about us. That has direct ramifications on what relatively little economic development opportunity we have.

Because unlike most things people compare homosexuality to, it can’t be changed. You can’t change who you love. You can, however, lose weight. You can increase your income and your education. You can cover your hair color and change your clothes. You can change your diet, your exercise, your TV viewing, your reading habits. Those are actual lifestyle choices. You can even change large parts of your identity.

But for now, Indiana has failed to change its identity.