An America Safe for All 

A black pastor argues for the Hate Crimes Bill.

Memphis is sweltering this time of year, but some preachers insist on cranking up the heat even more. They're getting hot under the collar over the Matthew Shepard Act, a bill that will soon come to a vote in the U.S. Senate.

This legislation extends federal hate crimes to cover individuals attacked because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. These ministers contend that this bill, if passed, will prevent them from preaching against homosexuality.

Well, I've got news: Preachers can freely preach prejudice under this legislation. Their First Amendment rights are fully protected. As an African-American woman, I think these preachers should support human rights for all people. However, I tolerate their right to be wrong. What I don't support is the untruth they are spreading.

The Matthew Shepard Act explicitly states: "Nothing in this act ... shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of, the first amendment to the constitution."

Some of our ministers here in Memphis have lashed out at this proposed law, though it is intended to protect all people who are victims of brutal hate crimes. In addition to attacking the legislation, they also have attacked Representative Steve Cohen for his support of this bill when it passed in the House of Representatives in May.

These ministers want you to believe that the black community is separate from the gay community. But you and I know that there are plenty of black brothers and sisters who are gay. It is shocking when African Americans sit silently when violence is practiced against anyone because of their identity.

Nakia Ladelle Baker, a transgender woman, was found beaten to death in early January in a Nashville parking lot. A stranger stabbed Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old African American, to death after she told him she was a lesbian. These are examples of the hundreds of anti-gay hate crimes happening throughout our country. And no matter what my fellow Memphis ministers say, the bottom line is this: We must do everything in our power to prevent hate and violence.

Some preachers want the right to shout about immorality and who is going to heaven and who is not. But Jesus said, "Come to me all you who are heavy-laden and I will give you rest." "All" means all. Sadly, hearts, and sometimes bodies, are still being broken in the name of religion.

Today, all Americans are still not protected from hate-fueled violence. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender lives are at stake. Some folks do not care. Even worse, some folks condone such attacks. The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act is a way to give law enforcement all the resources possible to prosecute these horrific crimes.

I remember some years ago, I feared for my life at a gay-rights rally as white men drove up and down the street, yelling obscenities and physical threats, with shotguns hanging out of vehicle windows. I thought I was going to die that night. These were not idle threats. More recently, I attended a gay pride gathering here in Memphis where people hurled obscenities at us, but the large police presence may have kept any guns hidden away.

Amidst this anti-gay rhetoric in Memphis, I do see signs of hope and progress. Having been born and raised in South Memphis before the civil rights movement, I know what change is.

Since I came back home 12 years ago, I am seeing even more change. The welcoming United Church of Christ congregation, where I am a minister, is growing. There is a thriving Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, and two celebrations each year recognize the presence and contributions of gay Memphians.

I call on my brothers and sisters in Memphis to continue to fight for an America that is safe for all people, regardless of their race, sexual orientation, or any other classification. I ask everyone to speak the truth — the truth for all people, not just for a few. And to stand for the America of which we all dream — a country where we can all be who we are without the fear of violence.

Reverend La Paula Turner is the associate pastor of Holy Trinity Community Church in Memphis.

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