By Rae Hodge–
It was only a year or so ago when LGBTQ communities across the nation were staggering punch-drunk under the weight of ineffable grief, watching a rash of harassment-predicated child suicides and murders spread across the country. Some victims were as young as 11 and 12.
Kentuckian Darryl Denham lost his child, Sam, to suicide. He carries in his pocket the bullet that took his 13-year-old son’s life. Billy Lucas, 15, hung himself in a barn in Greensburg, Ind. Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, shot himself. Tyler Clementi, 18, received a public gay-shaming at Rutgers via his roommate’s webcam, and died after leaping into the Hudson.
Activists and allies begged the media and government to notice. Some launched the It Gets Better campaign, and we saw the president look into the camera and tell us that bullying is not a rite of passage and must be stopped.
Current state law draws few conclusions on hate crimes involving sexual orientation, even these many years since the death of Matthew Shepard. Four Kentuckians from Hazard County now face charges for the kidnapping and assault of a gay man. The Justice Department said the case marks the first use of the 2009 federal law, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The outcome will undoubtedly speak to the future of enumerative protection in Kentucky law.
To combat the rising number of such tragedies and defend those children who are vulnerable to rabid social predation, states on both coasts have taken up a variety of legislation recently. When attending the nation-wide unveiling of two years’ tragedies and seeing a rapid increase in our own number of child suicides, it is inevitable that the question will be begged before the courts and on the chamber floors: What stand will Kentucky take?
House Bill 336, the anti-bullying legislation sponsored by Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, came before the Kentucky General Assembly this year and presented the Commonwealth with the opportunity to lead the charge for civil rights in the Bible belt. The bill sought to enumerate frequently-harassed groups of children—LGBT, the physically and mentally disabled and those of race and religion not shared by the majority. Teachers, pressed by school principles into defending their disciplinary actions toward bullies, would have had a definitive clause to point to in state law and administrators would be forced to deal seriously with this type of harassment. Most importantly, young students would know that they have someone looking out for them in Frankfort.
The republicnan majority in the House Education Committee voted down HB336 on March 13, after a hearing that included over an hour of testimony from the parents of various children who have committed suicide in the last few months due to the torment they received on a daily basis in school, and in some cases, at home.
During the hearing of HB 336, Republican response was unanimously against enumerative protection in legislation. Commentary came from Rep. C.B. Embry of Morgantown and Rep. Addia Wuchner of Florence, who voted the bill down and compared anecdotes about their childhood experiences with mild bullying. The sentiment of the majority was that the anti-bullying legislation already in place is a sufficient law that wasn’t sufficiently enforced. Putting aside that the comparisons were in poor taste, their arguments didn’t hold water for the masses that had congregated at committee.
Rep. Ben Waide, R-Madisonville, had the most revealing comments of the day when he finally got to the core of the republican argument against the bill. “If this law were to pass,” said Waide, “then we would be placing into our school statutes, for the first time in our history, gay rights language.”
Democratic sentiment on the issue was dramatically different from republican. Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, D-Lexington, stated flatly her disgust with her colleagues, and admitted to also being the mother of a child that committed suicide. Palumbo applauded the parents before her on their incredible bravery, adding that their strength must far surpass her own, given the short amount of time since the death of their children.
In his book, “Kentucky: Portrait in Paradox, 1900-1950,” state historian James C. Klotter writes about precedent-setting critical points in the Kentucky’s history when our Commonwealth was positioned to take a leading stride in politics, economics, and education but failed to seize the opportunity.
The significance of legal precedent is that it gives our justices and citizens the ability to apply context to a wide variety of cases. Drawing on the examples set by those behind us, despite our disagreement or agreement with the ultimate result, allows citizens and legislators to make informed decisions about the future of civil rights in Kentucky.
The power of precedent crosses state lines as well. The legislation of one governing body can influence another in complex and nuanced ways. Consider, for example, the cascade of restrictive immigration laws that have spread rapidly through southern legislatures.
When a legislative body recognizes a class of citizens as requiring enumerative protection in law, particularly when that class has experienced social and legal marginalization, the legislature expresses a desire for that group’s inclusion in institutionalized power structures. In short, a state government can publicly address an imbalance in social power by drawing regional attention to the issue.
Wide swaths of constituents from every walk of life have voiced concern in the halls of the Capitol this year, and the latest struggles of this demographic and their families have been shouted from the media mountaintops, yet the problem remains unadressed. The elephant looms in the marble halls our legislature: For Kentucky, and for our children, another crucial turning point has passed, another opportunity missed.
Photo: Rae Hodge/The Louisville Cardinal