As I sat to write, the City of Atlanta is gearing up for a busy weekend of queer activity. The headlining event of Labor Day weekend, Atlanta’s Annual Black Gay Pride celebration, is sure to attract tens of thousands of the “Children” to what is considered the largest Black pride festival in the world.

Throw on top of that a joint Georgia Equality/HRC sponsored protest and picket of local Target and Best Buy retail stores taking place on Saturday, bringing awareness to their recent flush donations to support a Minnesota gubernatorial candidate running on an anti-gay platform, and the fact that many will be toasting the end of summer in style during the ensuing three-day weekend, and it seems like every queer in the metro area will have something do.

Why Georgia needs a Hate Crimes law

It brings new meaning to the handle “The City Too Busy to Hate”.

Unfortunately, as I smiled thinking about how packed the weekend is going to be with LGBT folk have good, old-fashioned LGBT fun and working toward a better LGBT future, I received an email that brought my bliss to a screeching halt.

Apparently, in our hurry to grow past our sordid history, Savannah has grown ripe for the hate that Atlantans have hastily cast aside. An update on the case of the gay Savannah man who was the victim of an alleged hate crime earlier this year that has appeared in various area news outlets this morning has thoroughly enraged me.

From the GA Voice’s Dyana Bagby:

The alleged beating of a gay man in Savannah by two Marines is no longer being considered a hate crime, according to a spokesperson for the Chatham County District Attorney.

Christopher Stanzel, 23, and Keil Cronauer, 22, of Beaufort are charged with misdemeanor battery in the attack on Kieran Daly, 26, on June 12 in Savannah. Daly, who is gay, alleged that he was attacked because one of the Marines said he winked at him.

Alicia Johnson, spokesperson for the Chatham County DA’s office, which includes Savannah, said today that the two Marines will only face misdemeanor charges for allegedly punching Daly.

Wait, is this really possible? Wasn’t it less than a year ago that President Barack Obama signed federal hate crimes legislation into law and the Department of Justice rolled out a plan, including hosting a meeting for LGBT stakeholders down here in Atlanta, to educate the masses about what the new law meant for its impacted communities?

It was indeed, and now DOJ is refusing to prosecute the two Marines for hate crimes after reviewing the case. Add into the mix that the Marines will only face misdemeanor charges because Kieran’s injuries weren’t “serious enough”, and that the perpetrators will only face the possibility of military charges pending the outcome of their criminal trial, and the entire scenario was enough to turn my healthy simmer to a robust boil.

I was pleased last October when our President honored (part) of his promise to LGBT Americans and our government, beyond recognizing a need for protections for our most marginalized communities against crimes motivated by hate and bias, finally put some action behind their words by signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr.

Hate Crimes Prevention Act. However, the narrow constraints and hollowness of the federal statute in a non-federal case provide but a false sense of security for people like Kieran who, even after the harrowing experience of being bashed, cannot count on a righteous implementation of protections created with him, and people like him, in mind.

The reality is that a federal hate crimes law is a great step in the right direction, but it is not enough. It is not enough to paint the nation with a broad stroke of applied justice when that same justice is incapable of flowing into the nooks and crannies of our union, such as in places like Savannah. It becomes, as best, a distilled symbolic gesture – at worst, a painful miscarriage of justice. More importantly, it transforms a stalwart directive from a significant marker in the fight for LGBT equality into a flagrant reminder that, even after the President codifies our protection, we are still not safe.

Now more than ever we need the progressive leaders of our communities to overcome our history. We must challenge the status quo and demand the Georgia legislature to pass hate crimes legislation that will pick up where the federal law leaves off. A state-wide protection would have fortified the Chatham District Attorney with the necessary statutes and resources to mount its own investigation into the bias-based motivations of the crime, and simultaneously disallow their authority to slink behind the purview of DOJ, an agency with ironically limited jurisdiction over the situation.

A state-wide law would empower our local LGBT community to hold police officials accountable for conducting a thorough investigation to determine the relevancy of bias-based protections, and increase the transparency of the process to ensure that all parties involved had the ability and authority to execute the necessary due diligence in carrying out the appropriate justice. And a state-wide law would give people like Kieran another avenue to avail themselves of the justice they so richly deserve when, as in this instance, the federal protection just isn’t enough.

It can happen here in Georgia – in fact, it already happened once: in 1999, the General Assembly passed a landmark, if innocuous, hate crimes bill that then-Governor Roy Barnes signed into law. Although the state Supreme Court struck down the statute in 2004 because of its ambiguity, the path toward state-wide hate crime protections has been traveled successfully – an important fact to remember in the context of Georgia’s current political climate which, as hostile as it is toward LGBT people, is certainly more progressive now than it was ten years ago.

As we romp and rally this weekend, I hope that we will all take a moment to reflect on the privilege we each have to celebrate and live our truth. It was a long hard road beaten by countless visionaries with a prophecy of a better life for LGBT people. And as we enjoy that life so fearlessly gifted to us, I hope we won’t forget the work still remaining, the battles still warring.

We must make the state hate crime law a priority — for the Kierans of future generations.