Sanesha Stewart, Lawrence King, and why hate crimes legislation won’t help

I’ve been out of town and subsequently out of touch for a while now, visiting El Paso with my partner to meet her incomprehensibly adorable two-week-old nephew. But in the midst of the happiness that babies and family and vacation bring, two pieces of tragic news have weighed heavily on my mind. Both of them demonstrate how dangerous and hostile a world this is for people who are trans and gender non-conforming.

On February 10, Sanesha Stewart, a young trans woman of color, was brutally murdered in her apartment in the Bronx. This is tragic and deeply saddening in and of itself, and part of a frightening and enduring pattern of violence against trans people. But because of this woman’s identities – trans, woman, person of color, low income – the tragedy doesn’t end with her death and the grief of those who knew and loved her. Instead, the mainstream media, specifically the Daily News, has managed to add to the tragedy with grossly disrespectful and transphobic journalism – if such garbage can even be called journalism. This, too, is part of a pattern, one that I’ve written about before. And yet, every time I read another disgustingly transphobic article, I’m still shocked and appalled that some media sources will stoop so low. Even in death, even after having been murdered, trans people are given no respect and are treated as less than human.

In an eloquent and resonating post on Feministe, Holly posits a world in which Sanesha Stewart’s murder would be treated with respect for the victim and a cold eye for the killer, then contrasts that with the lurid reality:

There was no respect and no cold eye, none at all. I must be imagining some completely different universe where young trans women of color aren’t automatically treated like human trash. Where we all live, business as usual is to make a lot of comments about what the murder victim dressed like and looked like, reveal what her name was before she changed it, automatically assume she’s getting paid for sex, and to make excuses for the alleged killer.

Only days after Sanesha was murdered, Lawrence King, a 15-year-old, openly gay, gender non-conforming junior high schooler was shot in the head and killed by Brandon McInerney, a fellow classmate, a 14-year-old boy. McInerney has been charged with first-degree murder and a hate crime, for which he could face a sentence of 24 years to life with an additional three years because of the hate crime status.

It’s mind-boggling. Mind-boggling that someone so young could be so severely punished for simply being himself; mind-boggling that someone so young could have so much hatred or anger inside of him that he could kill another kid. Or, as Holly suggests in another post, that perhaps McInerney was not acting out of simple hatred:

I fear the worst — and the worst would not just be that some homophobic asshole killed a child. There’s an even worse worst: that a child is dead, and the other child who pulled the trigger did so because he couldn’t deal with his own feelings. And now that second child will be tried as an adult, and another life destroyed.

When crimes like the murders of Lawrence King and Sanesha Stewart occur, I often hear queer and trans advocates call for strong hate crimes legislation. In a statement from the Human Rights Campaign about King’s murder (mind you, I doubt the HRC would ever release any statement about Stewart’s murder), Joe Solomnese reiterated this demand:

While California’s residents are fortunate to have state laws that provide some protection against hate crimes and school bullying, this pattern of violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students is repeated too often in schools and communities across America each day. This tragedy illustrates the need to pass a federal hate crimes law to ensure everyone is protected against violent, bias-motivated crimes, wherever they reside.

I disagree with this response. I cannot see how hate crimes legislation can do anything to protect anyone – queer and trans people, people of color, women, and other victims of hate crimes. Hate crimes legislation only works after the fact, after someone has been victimized, hurt, or killed. Hate crimes legislation cannot undo what has been done. Nor can it undo what has been done to our society and to the individuals within it: the inscription of hatred, of intolerance, of prejudice upon our psyches. Hate crimes don’t occur because there aren’t enough laws against them, and hate crimes won’t stop when those laws are in place. Hate crimes occur because, time and time again, our society demonstrates that certain people are worth less than others; that certain people are wrong, are perverse, are immoral in their very being; that certain people deserve discrimination, derision, and disrespect.

Perhaps advocates of hate crimes legislation believe that such laws would send a message to people that homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of prejudice and hatred are wrong. I don’t think it will. How could such laws counteract the prejudices that permeate our society? I seriously doubt that hate crimes legislation that is only brought up after someone is hurt or killed can make a dent in the ubiquitous flood of messages that we receive from politicians, religious leaders, the media and pop culture that queers and trans people are less deserving of respect and rights than straight and non-trans people. In this country, all signs point to queer people being second-class citizens, and trans and gender non-conforming people being maybe third or fourth-class citizens. That is what sets up a situation where someone is targeted because of their sexuality or their gender identity, just as such dehumanization is what has fueled racist and sexist violence for centuries. And that’s simply not going to be undone by hate crimes legislation. Attacking a few of the symptoms of hatred while leaving others unhindered and the root causes untouched is never going to change much of anything.

Moreover, hate crimes legislation is far too tied up with our unjust judicial system and prison industry. How can we rely on systems that continuously target and abuse people of color, queer folks, and trans folks to protect us from targeting and abuse? Can we really trust the police, the courts, and prisons to protect us when much of the time they’re violating our rights, tearing apart our families, and ravaging our communities? Is it likely that hate crimes legislation will be applied fairly across the board in a system that consistently fails to treat all people equally? I think not. For communities that often find themselves being victimized by the judicial and prison systems, there can be little to gain in bolstering those systems and giving them more power to imprison, possibly unjustly. For my part, I’m invested in prison abolition, so “protections” that serve primarily to send more people to jail for longer periods of time are counterintuitive.

In fact, because hate crimes legislation involves no analysis of power – it’s not legislation against homophobic or transphobic or racist acts, but rather against general hatred in any direction – such laws can even be applied against oppressed people. Now, I’m not defending or condoning acts of violence or hatred perpetuated by oppressed people, nor am I saying that one form of violence is better than the other. But the lack of a power analysis built into such legislation reminds me of accusations of “reverse racism” in that they both completely miss the point. Queer folks, trans folks, people of color aren’t disproportionately victimized simply because some individuals hate them; that hatred is backed up, reinforced, and executed by an entire system of institutionalized power that allows and in fact encourages such acts of violence. The lack of acknowledgment of these systems of power in hate crimes legislation only reinforces my belief that such legislation is relatively useless in doing anything to stop homophobia, transphobia, racism and other forms of oppression, and therefore won’t do much to stop the violence that stems from said oppression.

Hate crimes legislation won’t bring Sanesha Stewart or Lawrence King back, nor will it protect other trans and gender non-conforming folks and people of color from violence fueled by hate. Instead of reacting to hatred with disapproval after the fact, we need to instill a proactive condemnation of hatred, prejudice and discrimination into our society. Sure, that’s a much more difficult job to do, but it can be done, slowly but surely, and it’s the only way we’re truly going to protect those who need protection most.

19 Responses to “Sanesha Stewart, Lawrence King, and why hate crimes legislation won’t help”

  1. 1 myles

    this is a fantastic post, jack. thank you for writing it.

  2. 2 avy

    This post is really on point. I wish the public discourse on hate crime legislation was even half as intelligent as this.

  3. 3 Billy

    Nice post. I don’t think hate crime legislation is the only or most pertinent solution to the problem, but I do think it is an important legal distinction that allows us to set precedents and change the law of the land. The system is unfair and unjust, but it is capable of changing. I totally agree that the way McInerny is being tried is morally reprehensible, regardless of the crime he is charge with or his motives.

    Additionally, the media coverage of this story has been so non-specific. The income and racial makeup of the school, the power dynamics of the teachers and administrators, the family lives of the young people (or lack thereof in King’s case) are all important factors in what happened. But the wire stories all read like:

    8th Grader’s Unspecified Organs Donated

    An unspecified Southern California community tries to cope as a make-up wearing 8th grade boy’s organs are harvested. He was killed by an unnamed 8th grader who was apprehended a few blocks away n unknown amount of time after the crime. No one is sure why he did it. Unidentified classmates think that King seemed gay (read trans) because he wore make-up and high-heeled boots. The boy’s father (they don’t mention that he isn’t the legal guardian) is asking for prayers and donations.

    There is never a mention of the trailer park across from the school, or of the 10 foot tall fence surrounding the compound. No one has reported on why King was living in a group home. No one has mentioned the races of the students. No one has mentioned the income level of the neighborhood. No one is telling the real story of how homophobia and transphobia are doling out havoc on our most vulnerable communities. No one is questioning why school officials fabricated a story that King was awake and alert and talking with police.

    It really seems like there is zero investigative reporting or investigative police work happening around either of the cases you mentioned (in addition to several other trans murders nationally in the past month). And yet when some random teenage girl went missing last year in the Caribbean the search was on the news 24/7 for weeks.

  4. 4 jeri

    Jack, you have a beautiful soul. Stay true….

  5. 5 Christian Pell

    While both murders are quite tragic, I disagree with you that hate crimes legislation is not a good thing for us. Why? …because I work in the Court systems, and I have a lot less fear of the big bad cops and DA offices as you seem to advocate.

    Murder is murder, but let’s call it like it was. Sanesha Stewart was quite probably earning a buck as a prostitute. Is “hooker” such a nasty word? A prostitute in my book is a hooker and to me tragic people hire prostitutes and tragic people make a living as a prostitutes.

    Should we add a “P” to GLBT now, or just continue to bash HRC for anything and everything they do that is a good thing. It was high school kids who organized those rallies for the kid in California and brought the story into the national media. Give me a break.

  6. 6 jeri

    Christian, after perusing your comment your name strikes me as ironically appropriate. Your employment in the judicial system only adds to the irony.

    I don’t understand why you focused on the possibility or supposed probability on the undetermined assumption that Sanesha was a sex worker. (or prostitute or hooker, or whore, or whatever foul label you can attach to a victim of the ultimate crime) Your presumption by itself borders on despicable. There is one thing that I will assure you, Sanesha Stewart was HUMAN. She was a beautiful young woman in every sense of the word. And she was robbed of her life.

    Jack in no way “bashed” HRC. He merely commented on Solomnese’ response to the tragedy. As an organization, HRC has not only broken commitments but has outright lied to the transgender community. They are no longer considered a civil rights or human rights organization; they are merely a lobby group seeking to gain advantage for privileged and wealthy gay men. There is some bash for you. Please do not consider it a fact. Please research the validity of my statement. It only represents my humble opinion.

    Your lack of empathy with the victims is more than apparent, as is your lack of humanity and common decency. I won’t make a statement that strong anonymously. My last name is Hughes. I live in DC. I am easy to find. Come talk to me when you grow a pair. I’ll give you a break.

  7. 7 richard

    Thanks so much Jack for this post. We argued this back in 1999 over that a** Barney Franks statement when taken to task over not supporting Trans inclusion in ENDA. But he was all a-ga over his support for Hate Crimes inclusion. Jack your last paragraph sums it up very nicely. Just found your site today, glad I did. Today in CT. we had Trans Lobby Day. The Trans community is not protected in our civil rights bill, in housing, jobs, etc. Hope to pass it this year. Oh what stories were told. Enough to make one cry. Christian did you ever think that many trans people can’t get a job because of the nasty discrimination they face which forces many to have to work in the sex industries? Thanks to Jeri too for your response.

  8. 8 Billy

    “tragic people hire prostitutes and tragic people make a living as a prostitutes”

    I am guessing you do not know many sex workers. Or, perhaps you do, but they are scared to come out to you. It is true that many folks come to sex work in hard times, but sex workers, as a class, are only tragic in so much as they are deemed disposable by the legal system and people who pay for the services of sex workers are only tragic in so much as they are shunned for being willing to pay someone for the services that others coerce or violently force out of people.

  9. 9 Jon

    Sigh…brilliant as usual. And as usual, I wrote a long response to you that I couldn’t quite get to be as well put-together as yours, and no doubt rehashes arguments about why hate crime laws are a bad idea that can already be found online. That said, I really liked your point about hate crime laws being popular in part because they can appear pro-gay, benefit gays with privilege, and require no analysis. Which makes it perfect for the HRC platform.

    My main regret is that there are queers who think that HRC is part of our community.

  10. 10 Jack

    @myles and @avy – thanks!

    @Billy – I agree, the media coverage of Lawrence King’s murder has been strange and non-specific. I do wonder if part of that is because the victim is a child; sometimes that causes the media to back off a bit, which is not such a bad thing. Even though some details do seem missing, it would also feel kinda gross and opportunistic to see the media put out details of Lawrence’s life out there, or even of McInerny. I think there’s a place for the sort of investigative reporting that tries to get at what could’ve caused such a tragedy, but it would have be done very thoughtfully, very respectfully, and without any sensationalism. Probably something best left for a bit farther down the road.

    It really seems like there is zero investigative reporting or investigative police work happening around either of the cases you mentioned (in addition to several other trans murders nationally in the past month). And yet when some random teenage girl went missing last year in the Caribbean the search was on the news 24/7 for weeks.

    Yes, the disparate media attention is part and parcel of how both the media and our larger society place different value on the lives of different people. A murdered young trans woman of color is vilified, slandered, and disrespected; a young gender non-conforming queer person barely registers on the radar; a young, non-trans, straight white woman makes sympathetic headlines for months on end.

  11. 11 Jack


    I work in the Court systems, and I have a lot less fear of the big bad cops and DA offices as you seem to advocate.

    Well, I’m glad that you have the privilege of a happy and healthy relationship with the police and the judicial system. Many people don’t have that privilege. My own experiences with the cops involve being wrongfully jailed for days during the RNC, getting pepper sprayed in the face, and watching friends be wrongfully and violently arrested. (And before you say these things were probably deserved, let me assure you that all charges were thrown out in all of the aforementioned arrests.)

    I don’t see what Sanesha Stewart’s alleged and unsubstantiated sex work has to do with anything at all. What are you trying to say? That she deserved to be killed? That she’s somehow culpable in her own death? That she’s somehow less worthy of respect and remembrance because of some unfounded claims that she was a prostitute? Firstly, being a sex worker does not make anyone any less human or less deserving of respect and safety and freedom from violence. Secondly, since no actual evidence has been given of Sanesha having been a sex worker, you’re just parroting a pervasive stereotype of trans women, especially trans women of color.

  12. 12 Jack

    @jeri: thank you for both of your responses. And though it’s true that I hardly bashed them in my post, I appreciate and completely agree with your take on HRC.

    @richard: See, that’s the kind of legislation I’m down for: civil rights legislation, employment and housing protections – laws that actually protect trans and queer people in their everyday lives and enforce the idea that we are as worthy of respect and rights as everyone else, rather than laws that only help us when we’ve been violently victimized.

    @Billy: thank you so much for that response to Christian. Completely right on.

    @Jon: thank you! And again, word on HRC. They’re certainly not part of my community.

  13. 13 AgentX

    Speaking of mistreatment of non-conformers, it has come to my attention that you are being targeted by the White Wing

    No one is safe these days, transgender or regular-gendered.

  14. 14 Les

    Disclaimers: I’m trans and I hate cops. I’m also a grad student.

    I think hate crimes laws are a good thing. Not because I want to see kids tried as adults. Nor do I want longer prison sentences or larger prison populations. Laws have a normative effect. Hate crime laws emphasize that you don’t just get a wink and a nod when you harm a dissempowered minority. The message they send is not “we’re going to lock you up a long time” but rather, “you know, it’s really not ok for you to do that.”

    Hate crimes laws are not enough, of course. Schools and teachers need to enforce a policy of respect for minority students. Newspapers like the Post need to get their heads out of their fucking asses. The way this happens is activism. Writing letters to the paper. Blogging about it. Making a fuss. Standing up and demanding rights. This blog post is part of the solution. But so are hate crimes laws. And so is ENDA. It’s a small part of a bigger puzzle.

  15. 15 Christian Pell

    Nice statement by The Task Force on the California Murder. No time to search but I ll assume they did the same for the Sanesha Stewart murder also, right?

  16. 16 Jack

    Actually, it doesn’t appear that they did, Christian. Neither a search of the Task Force’s website nor a Google search for the words task force and Sanesha Stewart turned up anything. Yet another example of a mainstream LGBT organization being “selective” (read: discriminatory) in determining which queers and trans people deserve their mourning, their outcry and their attention.

  17. 17 avi

    yes… but i can’t help but wonder…would it hurt to have hate crimes legislation passed? although it is certainly not, as you write, a way to “instill a proactive condemnation of hatred, prejudice and discrimination into our society”, it is a way of saying that committing an act of hatred, prejudice and discrimination on the basis of gender identity will be recognized as such and considered in prosecutory efforts. although laws don’t change views (there are still racists, homophobes, and misogynists in abundance despite laws that work to protect people of color, women, and gays and lesbians) they do help to insure that checks and balances are put in place to insure that there are spaces (in employment, housing, education, the court system, etc.) where i can know that, even though i am gender non-conforming, i will not have to be subject to unchallenged hatred, prejudice and discrimination, and if i am, i will have legal recourse. i don’t see the harm in that, as long as, in addition to such legislation, proactive efforts are made toward systematic change on every level.

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