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Will attacks on transgender South Carolinians lead to a state hate crime law?

‘Say her name’: Vigil at SC State House honors Sasha Wall, transgender homicide victim

On April 1, 2018, Sasha Wall, a black transgender woman, was killed in Chesterfield County. Members of the LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter communities held a vigil at the SC State House to honor her memory on April 29.
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On April 1, 2018, Sasha Wall, a black transgender woman, was killed in Chesterfield County. Members of the LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter communities held a vigil at the SC State House to honor her memory on April 29.

An attack on a transgender woman in Charleston last month is reigniting talk about whether South Carolina needs a hate crime law.

LGBT advocates say they would like to see the state adopt an expansive definition of hate crimes after a trans woman was knocked unconscious outside a nightclub on Aug. 19.

A suspect in the attack — which police say was preceded by a confrontation over the victim’s gender — was arrested Tuesday, and charged with assault and battery. Thus far, no federal hate crime charges have been filed in the Charleston case.

“The difference with the feds getting involved could be a felony,” said Chase Glenn, executive director of the Charleston-based advocacy group Alliance for Full Acceptance.

South Carolina is one of five states that does not have a state hate crime law. Bills to create a state-level law — which would increase the penalties for crimes motivated by hatred or bias — have been introduced in the past. But none has come close to passing, even after a 2015 racially motivated shooting in a Charleston church that killed nine.

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, was a sponsor of a state hate crime bill earlier this year and plans to reintroduce the bill when lawmakers return to the State House in January.

“It appears we’re in a climate where intolerance and hatred reign, and it’s not getting better,” Cobb-Hunter said.

The state hate crime bill would create a penalty of two to 15 years in prison and a fine of $2,000 to $10,000. Among other protected characteristics, the proposal would cover sexual orientation, defined as a “person’s actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality, or gender identity or expression.

Charleston police say 30-year-old Christopher Lamar Price initiated the confrontation with a transgender woman and her boyfriend “by making statements about their sexual orientation,” using a slur and asking them to kiss each other, according to TV station WCSC.

Price later struck the victim, causing her to strike her head on a stone and brick walkway, police said. Her injuries required 10 stitches to her face and scalp.

Charleston police initially downplayed the role that gender identity played in the incident. The initial statement from police said the victim “wasn’t assaulted because she’s a transgender.”

That comment caused some unhappiness within the LGBT community.

“Crimes against transgender individuals have, historically, been underinvestigated or not investigated at all,” said Columbia activist Dayna Smith.

The Charleston incident comes after 29-year-old Sasha Wall was shot and killed on a road in rural Chesterfield County over Easter weekend. SLED and the FBI are investigating the transgender woman’s murder after local law enforcement initially reported the victim as a man wearing women’s clothing.

South Carolina’s conservative political leadership has been resistant to proposals for a hate crime law. The bill proposed earlier this year in the GOP-controlled Legislature never advanced out of committee. During a May debate, all four Republican candidates for governor said South Carolina does not need a hate crime law.

“I don’t think we need more laws,” Gov. Henry McMaster, R-Richland, facing re-election in November, told reporters at the Clemson debate. “We already have laws that cover injuries to people.”

But Jeff Ayers, executive director of S.C. Equality, said a state law is needed to give LGBT people a sense that law enforcement is on their side.

“They say we don’t need one because of the federal law, but then you see the Trump administration rolling back policies that protect LGBT citizens,” Ayers said. “We need a law to protect all of our citizens.

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