Gay millionaire and former web entrepreneur Jared Polis, who was elected to Congress in November to represent Boulder, CO, caused a ruckus down in Texas recently with comments about gays and federal hate crime laws. Polis was addressing the Texas Stonewall Democratic Caucus when the issue came up.
John Wright, a reporter for the Dallas Voice, a widely-respected and award-winning gay newspaper, was present at the talk, taped it and has posted a transcript on the paper's site:
RANDY BROWN [local gay advocate]: Is Washington aware of the fact that people may get hurt? Because we might get hurt in the process of trying to just come out of the closet, just trying to help the process along. It’s a very, very frightening thing.
JARED POLIS: Have your local law enforcement agencies been helpful in offering you protection when you feel threatened?
POLIS: They haven’t?
POLIS: This is one of the reasons we have a federal hate crimes law, for that very reason. Sometimes in some conservative areas they don’t prosecute hate crimes, so we have on the books a law that allows the federal government to prosecute those if your local DA refuses to. So you might want to report it to your federal attorney general for your area if you feel threatened and the local authorities are not investigating or don’t seem to care. You can turn to the federal government for investigation of potential hate crimes.
BROWN: They generally throw hate crimes right out the court window.
POLIS: Well, that’s what your local, that’s what the state does, but I’m saying there is a federal recourse for that. That’s the very reason we did it.
[AT THIS POINT, TEXAS STONEWALL PRESIDENT DAN GRANEY STANDS UP AND TELLS POLIS THAT THE MATTHEW SHEPARD ACT DIDN’T PASS.]
POLIS: Oh, it didn’t pass? OK. So we still need to pass it? OK. So we’ll try to pass that one for you, too. But that’s why we need it. And of course Obama supports that, our Congress supports that, our Senate supports that. I thought we did pass it, so we will try to get that. But that’s exactly why we need it though, because in some of the areas where gays and lesbians do feel terrorized every day, the local authorities are in league with the forces of hate. And this would, when we pass it — thanks for pointing that out — give you recourse to go to the federal government to investigate hate crimes in your area, and that’s why it’s so important.
In another Dallas Voice blog post, Wright explained the recently history of the federal hate crimes bill and its gay clause, while also giving Polis the chance to explain his ignorance:
The Matthew Shepard Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes protections, passed both the House and Senate in 2007, but it was removed from a Defense Reauthorization bill after President Bush threatened to veto it.I am not an activist who believes in hate crime laws, basically because we have plenty of existing laws on the books that can and should be used when gays are assaulted and I'm not aware of any proof that such laws prevent or reduce attacks driven by bias.
Afterward, Polis told me he’d gotten confused because he knew the Shepard Act had passed Congress, and because protections against hate crimes based on sexual orientation are in place in his home state of Colorado.
That being said, hate crimes legislation at the federal level is a top priority for professional gay advocacy organizations aligned with the Democratic Party and it seems to me Polis should be very familiar with the Shepard Act and lack of federal hate crime laws.
So far, the reaction from gay lobbyists such as the Human Rights Campaign, the Victory Fund, GLAAD, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and their allies to Polis' comments and attempt at clearing up his confusion has been silence.
Yet, my gut tells me that if a gay GOP politician or a straight congressmember, either Democrat or Republican, display blatant ignorance about hate crime laws, those groups would be howling objections all over the web.
Kudos to John Wright and the Dallas Voice for covering this Polis gaffe without fear and much balance.
(Photo credit: Dallas Voice.)