Although much speculation and varying opinions regarding the murky case surrounding the brutal murder of 35-year-old Aaron Hall in southern Indiana has been circulating the Internet, the state's LGBT community largely agrees on one fact—Indiana still desperately needs to get a hate crimes law on its books.
Hall was beaten to death by three of his friends in April. Only after Hall's nude body was found hidden 10 days later did the accused murderers claim that they killed Hall because he made a sexual advance towards one of them. The case has rocked the Hoosier State's LGBT community due to rumors that the murderers will use the 'gay panic' defense, a rarely-used legal strategy that claims the killer or killers murdered because they were in a so-called psychiatric condition called 'homosexual panic.'
There are varying opinions as to whether this case, which has been largely ignored by mainstream media, should be labeled as a hate crime. After all, much remains unknown about the case; those close to Hall say he was straight and two of the murderers' trials won't take place until October. Many also doubt the murder of Hall should be used as an example of why a hate crimes law is needed in Indiana, which is one of five states in the nation that lacks such legislation. However, most agree that the case has sparked much-needed discussion over the issue of hate crimes legislation, and has caused the community to take a closer look at deeply-rooted problems in this largely red state.
In the last legislative session, religious conservatives lobbied to kill a hate crimes bill in Indiana. One legislator added 'viable fetus' to the list of victims protected under the bill, throwing a wrench in its passage by causing heated debate. The bill was voted down in the Indiana House of Representatives 46-50—just days after a hate crime beating of a Black male took place just blocks from where legislators were holding their debate.
It was difficult, but close, said Ellen Andersen, an Indiana Stonewall Democrats board member. 'We thought we might have had it this year,' she said. Andersen believes the problem in Indiana is deep-rooted, but the tides are changing. She cited a 2005 statewide study that showed 77 percent of Hoosiers agreed there needs to be hate crimes legislation in Indiana. Additionally, 73 percent of those surveyed in rural areas believed such legislation was a good idea.
'It's not that the public here is opposed to hate crime legislation,' Andersen added. 'It's that there's a slice of religious conservatives that are really opposed.'
But proponents of hate crimes legislation aren't giving up. Activists say that when the legislature goes back into session, they will continue to fight for a comprehensive hate crimes bill.
John Joanette—a lobbyist for Indiana Equality, a statewide coalition of organizations working toward LGBT equality—has hopes. He believes the failure of the bill's passage, in part, was due to the fact that the state was so 'wrapped up' in fighting anti-gay marriage attacks. 'What's been tripping us up is this marriage thing,' Joanette said. 'I have a feeling we can get this done in the next session.'
Andersen just wants Indiana to catch up with the rest of the nation: 'It's odd to see Indiana in that state [ lacking legislation ] . Indiana is a middle-of-the-road state. That we're hanging down at the bottom is not in character.'
Although many feel that it is too soon to even consider using the Hall murder as an example to push hate crimes law in Indiana, many agree having such legislation would at least keep the defense from arguing 'gay panic.'
'These rumors that the gay panic defense will be used in this case just go to show that gay people can still be used as whipping boys around here,' Andersen stated.
Hate crimes law activist Antony Hebblethwaite said that, in a way, the Hall case fits into the argument for a hate crimes bill. 'If Indiana had a hate crimes law or if we had a federal hate crimes law that included sexual orientation, using 'gay panic' as a legal strategy would no longer be desirable,' he said.
The federal hate crimes law Hebblethwaite is referring to is The Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which is currently being debated before the U.S. Senate after the House version passed 237-180. The bill could soon receive a Senate vote. It would provide funding to help local law enforcement agencies investigate and prosecute hate crimes. Such a law would help out in the Hall case, where the federal government could step in and assist Hall's family with the investigation.
Although many agree that although jumping to the conclusion that Hall's murder is a hate crime can be dangerous—especially because many of the facts aren't in yet—discussion about hate crimes legislation and 'gay panic' is certainly needed, and that the two go hand in hand.
Joanette believes this debate is crucial. 'We look at these things, talk about these things and comment on these things,' he said. 'It's a good thing people are debating this, no matter what their opinion.' He hopes the community continues to take a deeper look, and assures that Indiana Equality will be closely following the Hall case.
'I think pushing Aaron Hall as an example of why we should have hate crimes legislation is a little misguided,' said Bil Browning, president of Indiana Action Network and creator of the online LGBT forum The Bilerico Project. 'We have to talk about how, in the Aaron Hall case, these kids thought that by claiming he made a pass at them, that it would be okay to beat him to death. What kind of society have we promoted in Indiana by not passing the hate crimes legislation this year, where people think it is okay to beat gay people and that you can get away with murder that way?'
Andersen agrees, and suggests the community take a look at what causes this type of mentality in Indiana. 'The fact that they think they can get away with it by using 'gay panic' just speaks to the state of gay rights around here,' she said.