It's time for Oklahoma to act
BY LAURA A. BELMONTE
Thursday, October 09, 2008
10/09/08 at 3:03 AM
This week, many Americans will somberly remember the tragic 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. They will grieve a promising 21-year-old college student beaten to death and tied to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming, just because he was gay. Ten years later, this incident remains a chilling reminder of how easily this could happen to me, my partner, or my friends.
Sadly, there have been more recent examples of such senseless crimes much closer to home. Last October, Steven Domer, a 62-year-old gay man, was abducted in Oklahoma City. On Nov. 4, his body was found in rural McClain County. His hands were tied with duct tape and a wire hanger was wrapped around his neck. The Oklahoma State Medical Examiner concluded that Domer died of asphyxiation and ruled his death a homicide. On Nov. 28, Darrell Madden, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, was charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping in relation to Domer's death.
Prosecutors believe that Madden targeted Domer as part of an initiation rite of the Aryan Brotherhood. In order to secure a "patch," the white supremacist group demands that its members commit an act of violence against an African-American, Jew, gay, or any other person declared "an enemy."
Although Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and other law enforcement officials believed that anti-gay bias was a motivating factor in Domer's murder, they could not prosecute Madden under Oklahoma's hate crimes law because the statute does not cover sexual orientation.
The same limitations were evident three months ago when vandals twice targeted the home of Robert Stotler, an openly gay man living in east Tulsa. The assailants defaced Stotler's house, set his truck on fire and spray-painted "Gay Must Go" on the charred vehicle. Police ruled the incidents vandalism, but could not add additional hate crimes charges.
Such stories are very hard to hear, especially when they happen to fellow Oklahomans. Hate crimes occur when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her association with a certain group, and they are different from other acts of violence because they're not simply directed at an individual. Hate crimes are meant to evoke terror and intimidation in an entire group of people.
Alarmingly, the FBI's 2006 reporting on hate crimes found that out of the 7,722 incidents reported, 16 percent were based on sexual orientation — even higher than crimes based on ethnicity or national origin. So, in 2008, it's inexcusable that Oklahoma remains one of 19 states in the country that does not have hate crimes protections covering gay and transgender people. Tragically, Wyoming, where Shepard was murdered in 1998, is another state where there are no hate crimes laws covering gay or transgender residents.
Failing to protect gay and transgender Americans under existing hate crimes laws sends a message that violence against them is acceptable. But Gallup polling shows that nearly 70 percent of Americans favor the Matthew Shepard Act, a strengthened federal hate crimes law that includes both of these groups. A majority of law enforcement agencies also support this legislation.
While Congress may pass the Matthew Shepard Act next year, Oklahoma should not wait for national legislators before taking action to prevent people like Steven Domer and Robert Stotler from being killed and terrorized. In 2008, though four different hate crimes bills were introduced by state legislators, none received a single committee hearing. Oklahomans for Equality is now taking steps to ensure that new hate crimes legislation is introduced in 2009. With your help, we can persuade our lawmakers to make an inclusive hate crimes law a top priority during their next session.
However, the solution to this problem does not lie solely in the hands of voters and state legislators. Hate crimes evolve out of a larger cultural epidemic of fear, bullying, and learned hatred. These are community problems that require all of us to teach our children that it's unacceptable to harm anyone because of their race, national origin, sex, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Oklahomans can honor Matthew Shepard's life and legacy this year by supporting our diverse brothers and sisters, and by pushing for inclusive Oklahoma hate crimes legislation.
Laura A. Belmonte is president of Oklahomans for Equality, and served as convener of the Say No to Hate coalition from 2005 to 2008.