Anyone can be the victim of a hate crime, but sexual orientation and gender identity have only been included under federal hate crime legislation since October, 2009, when President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Hate crimes are crimes that happen when someone is targeted specifically because they are a member of a certain group. People may be targeted for many reasons including their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity.
The Matthew Shepard Act makes hate crimes based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, illegal and it allows the Justice Department to prosecute such crimes.
Until this bill passed, states decided whether or not sexual orientation and gender identity were covered by hate crime laws, and the federal hate crime laws only covered crimes based on the victim's race, color, religion or national origin.
According to the AP, "Some 45 states have hate crimes statutes, and the bill would not change the current situation where investigations and prosecutions are carried out by state and local officials. But it would provide federal grants to help with the prosecuting of hate crimes and funds programs to combat hate crimes committed by juveniles. The federal government can step in after the Justice Department certifies that a state is unwilling or unable to follow through on a purported hate crime."
What that means is that if someone commits a federal crime against a person because of their sexual orientation, this crime can be called a hate crime. However, if the crime is not a federal one, then it may only be considered a hate crime if it occurs in one of the 24 states with hate crime laws that include sexual orientation.
Those in favor of hate crime laws believe that because a conviction for a hate crimes often comes with more severe sentencing, such laws serve as a deterrent to crime. Additionally, people argue that these laws draw attention to to prejudice, and help prevent retaliatory violence.
There is also opposition to hate crimes legislation. Some believe that already enacted laws cover hate crimes. Many also see such laws as limiting free speech. Others feel minorities and the GLBT community are actually disproportionately targeted by these very laws which are supposed to protect them. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a transgender legal advocacy organization, takes this view and also states that, "The evidence also shows that hate crime laws and other “get tough on crime” measures do not deter or prevent violence. Increased incarceration does not deter others from committing violent acts motivated by hate, does not it rehabilitate those who have committed past acts of hate, and does not make anyone safer."