“Under the hate crimes rubric, gays are asked to see themselves as sad, passive victims of hate, reaching out to government to protect them more than those just targeted for other reasons (having money, for example). … Does anyone seriously believe that a hate-crimes federal law will actually prevent gay bashing? How exactly?” –Gay writer Andrew Sullivan in response to President Barack Obama’s signing a GLBT hate-crimes law Oct. 28.

Sullivan is wrong on his interpretation of the law. Gays as a class are not asked to see themselves as victims. Individual gays, however, actually are singled out and victimized on a daily basis. The violence is almost always committed by cowards in pairs or packs, surrounding and outnumbering the gay or trangender person.

While the new law will likely not prevent gay bashing in many cases (criminals often think they can get away with a crime) I think it will help in some instances. This is because the law takes away the veneer of social approval for “putting gays in their place” and “giving them what they deserve.” If one listens to media interviews with gay bashers, they often think that society approves, on some level, of what they do. They see themselves as moral enforcers willing to do God’s work that others are afraid to do.

To the extent this law says otherwise, it will stigmatize such crimes and decrease the social reward. At least the violent thugs now understand that the state views their actions as rogue, not righteous. Thus, hate crime laws serve as a psychological deterrent, at least some of the time.

Sullivan might respond that existing laws already send that same message. But, much like bullying rules in schools, GLBT people must be explicitly mentioned, because prejudice runs so deep that many people see us outside the normal rules of civility. They believe that bullying, even murder, is wrong – unless it is committed against a gay person. If the victim is gay, you are “teaching him or her a lesson” or “cleansing” society.

The new law chips away at such bigotry and lets Americans know that GLBT people are part of society and included in the general rules of common decency. This won’t eliminate attacks, of course, but I suspect it will, over time, cause a reduction.