As gay and immigrant rights advocates congregated in Jackson Heights, Queens, last week to educate citizens about their rights, Karina Claudio-Betancourt, a community organizer, peered at her BlackBerry and announced that the Senate had passed a measure to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability in the definition of hate crimes under federal law.
The news of the bill’s passage President Obama plans to sign it on Wednesday could not have come at a better time, the advocates said.
“We want people to know about their rights, but having the law on your side is powerful,” said Ms. Claudio-Betancourt, a project organizer for the Brooklyn-based nonprofit group Gays and Lesbians of Bushwick Empowered, which provides services to the gay community and runs programs in public schools to combat homophobia.
Community leaders say that even after more than a decade after the case of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student who was killed in 1998, a recent surge in hate crimes committed locally against gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender victims, as well as immigrants, has underscored the need for updating the hate crime laws. At the federal level, the law already safeguards people who are victims of hate crimes because of their race, color, religion or national origin. Sexual orientation is included in New York state law, but gender identity is not.
Nationally, hate crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have increased in recent years, advocates say. In June, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which examines hate crimes against sexual minorities, reported that bias-related killings were at their highest level since 1999, with at least 29 committed in 2008.
The recent attack of Jack Price, 49, in College Point, Queens, illustrates the need for the law, the advocates said. Two men Daniel Aleman, 26, and Daniel Rodriguez, 21 have been accused of assaulting Mr. Price, an openly gay man, who remains in the hospital after all his ribs were broken, both of his lungs collapsed and his jaw was broken.
“Jack has always been discriminated against because of his orientation,” said Joanne Guarneri, Mr. Price’s sister-in-law. “Never in a million years would he think someone would kill him for it.”
Erica Braudy, a lead organizer with the New York Civil Liberties Union, which helped organize last week’s forum in Queens, said educating people about diverse communities is as important as passing laws.
“We don’t want to wait until the next tragedy occurs to address this,” Ms. Braudy said.