First the bad news: Although my Congressional friend (as described yesterday) ultimately voted for the Hate Crimes bill, earlier in the day was one of just 9 Democrats who voted – along with every Republican – for a procedural measure designed to kill it.But that’s just a footnote to a very wonderful day in which the House passed legislation, 237-180, that, pending Senate and Presidential approval, will extend the existing Hate Crimes statute to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Now you ask, how could 180 Congressfolk – 166 of them Republicans – vote against this? Their two biggest arguments were that:

  • Murder and assault are already illegal. No special provisions are needed to cover hate crimes.
  • (But even if you buy that – and as I argued yesterday, you shouldn’t – what’s the justification for excluding just one group of hate crimes victims from the existing law?)
  • A 101-year-old woman was hit in the face three times by a New York City mugger who had followed her home to steal her purse – yet she, and old people like her, wouldn’t be covered by this law. And what about veterans? Why doesn’t this bill include them? It’s unfair to single out gays and lesbians for special treatment.
  • (But it’s not just gays and lesbians – the existing statute already covers whites and blacks and yellows and browns who may fall victim to hate crimes; and Catholics and Jews and Baptists and Muslims; and Poles and Latinos and Turks and even the French. Not to mention that the 101-year-old woman was attacked her for her money, not because the mugger’s motive was hatred.)

Even so, in a particularly dramatic moment, Chairman John Conyers turned to his Republican counterpart and asked if he would accept an amendment extending the statute to cover people over 65 and veterans.

And the Republican floor manager would not allow old people and veterans to be added to the bill.

I lack the time and skill to bring the proceedings to life. But the contrast was stark: Every Democrat who spoke supported the bill, in many cases eloquently. Every Republican who rose argued against it.

Let me end with just this. Forty-one years ago, give or take, two deeply closeted gay men were in the basement grill of an all-male college dorm.

One was a senior, determined never, ever to have anyone know he was gay – because it was the worst thing anyone could be. He was perpetually depressed and, though not without friends, completely alone with his secret.

The other was a “resident tutor” – a wildly popular assistant professor who compensated for his secret by chomping cigars, swearing like a sailor, and destroying all comers in political debate.

And oh, how they came to debate him. They thought themselves pretty smart and funny and cool. But up against this guy, seven or eight years their senior, they stood no chance. They would be at once convulsed with laughter and dazzled by his wit, speed, and breadth of knowledge.

They never would have imagined he had crushes on many of them, so gruff and macho was he.

Only that senior with the secret could tell, because he had crushes on the same students.

One evening in particular, down in that depressing little college grill, with its greasy hot dogs and hamburgers and a lone pinball machine, the student saw how the assistant professor was trading manly arm punches with a couple of the jocks – and it hit him: He (the student) was not the only one in the world who had been wired backwards. This wildly smart, funny, resident tutor shared the same terrible secret.

And the great thing about this country – or at least one of the great things, and the one I have experienced most personally – is that with time, things got better. Not all better, to be sure, but a lot better, with further improvement in sight.

With each passing year, more and more gays and lesbians felt freer to be themselves and to stand up for their equal rights.

And on May 3, 2007, the former assistant professor, Congressman Barney Frank, Chairman of the Financial Services Committee, took the gavel as Acting Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States of America – an openly gay man – and called for a vote on the hate crimes bill, HR 1592. When time was up and the vote tallied, he announced the results: 180 against, 237 in favor. It was a good day for America.

(Little was heard of the student, meanwhile. Rumor has it he went on to live a happy life and can be sighted from time to time on airport tarmacs, watching jets being towed to and from their gates, dreaming great thoughts.)

Monday: More o’ Borealis

 

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