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Being gay in New York City is not hard. Just like everybody else, you go about your own business, shove your way into subway cars, and constantly walk at an abnormally fast pace while grumbling about how slowly everyone around you is going about their business. No one is really asking, “Is this guy gay?” New York City offers a sense of normalcy for LGBTQ+ individuals, and that’s the way it should be.
Yet even New York has its demons.
I don’t know if you have ever been called “faggot!” on the New York City subway system. There is no exact way to describe the feeling, but the closest approximation would be to have your blood boiling through your skin, paired with the sensation of a knife stabbing and slowly turning in your stomach, telling you that somehow you are “wrong”—that you do not belong. That scarf you are wearing, the way you talk, the way you walk, the way you laugh, the pitch of your voice—they are all wrong.
It is this kind of prejudice that the LGBTQ+ community and LGBTQ+ organizations (as well as racial, religious, and ethnic groups) point to as the exact reason why hate crime laws, which allow for greater punishments and jail times for crimes committed with prejudice, are in place. They argue not only that crimes committed with prejudice are more harmful to the individual, but that they also victimize the entire community and should be punished more heavily. To many people, this offers at least a modicum of justice to marginalized communities in an unfair society.
These laws, however, provide anything but justice. Instead, while they may seem easily justifiable, hate crime laws from the federal level to the state level—which have been enforced at Harvard—represent some of the most dangerous, ineffective, and harmful laws our country has instituted.
There is a stunning implication behind hate crime laws that society has failed to contemplate before implementing them. Normally, violent speech is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution, unless it can be construed as“fighting words,” or words that can reasonably cause immediate violence. In the case of federal hate crime laws, however, simply having vocalized an opinion about a particular ethnic group, sexual orientation, or other group would increase the maximum punishment to 10 years for most violent crimes. For crimes involving sexual abuse, kidnapping, or death, the sentence can immediately be extended to life in prison.
This, in essence, punishes people for their beliefs, which sets an extremely dangerous precedent for the future. Giving the government the power to sentence people based on their beliefs is a horrifying prospect. We, however, simply choose not to think about hate crime laws in this manner since we have a sense of apathy towards people who are heading to prison anyways. These statutes thus give dangerously potent powers to the government.
They are also woefully inefficient. It has been known for years that deterrence through lengthened sentences does not function as an effective method for lowering crime rates. Indeed, the weight of empirical evidence supports this fact as it pertains to all crimes, but hate crimes in particular; hate crime legislation simply does not reduce the number of hate crimes.
By adding to people’s sentences, hate crime laws also directly contribute to the problem of mass incarceration, which already has an estimated social cost of $1 trillion per year. Furthermore, they only open the door to harsher crime laws by promoting the “tough-on-crime” mentality that has done so much damage to the United States.
Harvard is guilty of legitimizing these destructive practices of our government. Indeed, the last major crime with hateful motivations at Harvard was investigated as a hate crime by the University Police. In its approval of hate crime laws, Harvard fails to uphold its students’ (even the worst students’) right to think freely.
I am aware that it is all too likely that there will come a time when someone will not just shout “faggot!” at me. I am aware that it is all too likely that they will throw a punch, grab me, push me to the ground, try to sexually assault me, or maybe even brandish a knife and stab me.
The sadness, pain, and anger that I will experience will be unimaginably agonizing and unbearable. Unfortunately, however, hate crime laws will allow me to inflict far more individual and institutional damage than I myself received.
And that is exactly why they are unacceptable.
Lorenzo F. Manuali ’21 is a Crimson Editorial comper in Dewolfe.
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