An omission

What someone doesn’t say can be as significant as what they do say; more generally, a topic that someone doesn’t talk about can be as significant as the topics that they do.

So I don’t know quite what to make of a passage from a NYT op-ed column by Thomas T. Cullen (U.S. attormey for the Western District of Virginia), on-line yesterday under the title “The Grave Threats of White Supremacy and Far-Right Extremism: Hate crimes are on the rise. Police and prosecutors need better tools to fight back.” and in print today under the title “Rising Far-Right Extremism in America: Police and prosecutors need better tools to fight back”, about the case of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, arrested last week and accused of plotting to assassinate Democratic members of Congress, prominent television journalists, and others. The passage:

In 2009, Congress took an important step in arming federal investigators to deal with hate crimes by passing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This law makes it possible to prosecute as hate crimes violent acts committed against victims because of their race, color, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity or disability. The law provides stringent maximum penalties, including life imprisonment, if someone is killed during a hate crime.

The omission in the bold-faced clause is sexual orientation, which is specifically listed in the Shepard/Byrd law — as a result of the savage murder of Shepard in 1998 because of his sexual orientation.

Neither sexuality nor sexual orientation occurs in Cullen’s text. In fact, Shepard/Byrd is the only relevant federal legislation that mentions this status; otherwise, hate crimes laws in the domain of  sexuality are a state (or local) matter. So its omission in a paragraph on Shepard/Byrd is startling.

That could be an inadvertent error on the part of Cullen, his staff, and the relevant NYT staff; somehow, it got past all of them. The things that are new in Shepard/Byrd are the qualifiers actual or perceived on gender, plus sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability; somehow, gender identity survived in the NYT text, but sexual orientation did not.

But it could be that sexual orientation was omitted from the NYT text on purpose, to draw attention away from homosexuality, which might be seen as a red flag for many and a distraction from the main topic of Cullen’s piece. That wouldn’t be entirely astonishing: after all, it looks like Byrd was included in the name of the Shepard/Byrd act to gain support for the act, support unlikely to be extended to a piece of legislation framed primarily in terms of sexual orientation — even though Byrd, as a black man (also savagely murdered in 1998) was already covered under the race and color categories in earlier federal hate crimes legislation (specifically, the 1968 Civil Rights Act).

(Cullen’s stance in the matter of hate crimes categories is unclear. For what it’s worth, he was put forward for his current position by Virginia Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (both Democrats) and then appointed by President [REDACTED].)

The victims. Lest we forget.

(Warning: I find these brief descriptions and images painful to take, and you might not want to subject yourself to them.)

From the Wikipedia entry on Shepard, a young gay man:

On the night of October 6, 1998, Shepard was approached by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie [Wyoming]; all three men were in their early 20s. McKinney and Henderson decided to give Shepard a ride home.

They subsequently drove to a remote, rural area, and proceeded to rob, pistol-whip, and torture Shepard, tie him to a fence, set him afire and left him to die.

Shephard hanging on the fence, in Richard Taddei’s “Morning in America – The death of Matthew Shepard”, gouache on paper, 1998:


And a capsule account of the incomprehensibly vicious murder of James Byrd, Jr.:


One Response to “An omission”

  1. [BLOG] Some Wednesday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky notes the telling omission of sexual orientation as a protected category re: hate […]

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