Attorney General Jeff Sessions is showing a dead teenager more respect in death than he would have in that teen’s too-short life.
In March 2016, Kedarie Johnson, who identified as gender fluid, was shot to death in Burlington, Iowa. Sessions has taken the unusual step of assigning a federal hate crimes attorney to help prosecute one of the men now charged with first-degree murder.
Sessions should be commended for taking a special interest in this case. Still, that should not overshadow policies backed by the attorney general that have consistently undermined the lives of gay lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Johnson, for example, could have been denied the right to use the bathroom in his high school that corresponded to his gender identity. (Johnson used male pronouns, and sometimes went by the name Kandicee.)
“I love the fact that they have intervened,” Katrina Johnson, the slain 16-year-old’s mother, told the Huffington Post. But “it shouldn’t have taken for a child to lose his life, and for everyone to think it was a hate crime, for them to step up and do something. They need to continue to do something, even after this case is over.” That something, she said, is defending all LGBT people.
It is uncommon for the Department of Justice to get involved with state cases, and reports claim this decision was personally spurred by Sessions. Why he has chosen to move so aggressively on this particular case is unknown, but it’s an outlier for a man who has never been an advocate for the LGBT community or its rights.
As a senator, Sessions voted against extending hate-crime legislation to include sexual orientation and gender identity. As attorney general, he has rescinded clarifications that Title IX protections against gender discrimination be applicable to transgender students. Earlier this month, he reversed federal civil rights policy protecting transgender people from workplace discrimination, and issued a memo supporting so-called “religious freedom” laws, which essentially legalize discrimination.
When a government deprives certain communities of protections that should be guaranteed to all, it not only undermines rights, it endangers lives. It signals a second-class citizenship than can breed discrimination and fuel hate crimes.
Though Sessions’ decision to put the weight of the federal government behind prosecuting Johnson’s murder matters, it’s equally important that the same diligence is applied in protecting the rights of the LGBT community. As it stands now, only in death may Johnson receive any semblance of justice, something this administration steadfastly fought to deny him while he was alive.
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