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Balking at protection for gays

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In a year that saw a national outcry over the murder of a gay college student, gay activists in Michigan were disappointed by the Legislature’s failure to strengthen penalties for hate crimes against gays.

The bill, which would have added sexual orientation to the state’s ethnic intimidation law, passed in the House but wasn’t taken up in the Senate.

"The hate crime bill was really our chief priority," says Jeff Montgomery, executive director of the Triangle Foundation. Sean Kosofsky, also of Triangle, says the hate crimes legislation was "certainly the biggest issue facing our community this year."

The October killing of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard put national attention on anti-gay violence. A freshman at the University of Wyoming, Shepard had been kidnapped, beaten and left tied to a fence at a Wyoming ranch. He later died in a hospital. Police investigators say Shepard was targeted at least in part because he was gay.

"Other hate crimes in Michigan were just as brutal," says Kosofsky, associate director of policy for Triangle Foundation. "It took an attractive, young boy who had studied in Europe to get the whole country screaming about hate crimes."

The murder provoked vigils and debates across the nation on the subject of hate crimes.

Montgomery estimates that between five and seven murders in Michigan in 1998 were motivated by anti-gay bias. Montgomery, who has been tracking anti-gay hate crimes in Michigan for six years, says the number of anti-gay murders is usually somewhere between one and four per year.

"Anti-gay incidents do spike when public discussions allow extremists to characterize us in a demonizing and dehumanizing way," Montgomery says. "People will act out their homophobia and they are emboldened by religious leaders telling them to do that."

Montgomery says there are plans to reintroduce the hate crimes bill in the Legislature next year, but that the impending influx of post-term-limit Republican legislators could make passing such a measure even harder.

"It’s going to be a difficult task," he says. Speaking of those Republicans he calls "extremists" he says: "If they take the same thick-headed approach, they will reject anything that is really about the good, safety and risk-free welfare of a large number of their citizens."

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