Shepard Bill Reception Proves Emotional

President Barack Obama told about 300 civil rights leaders that the day was a milestone.

BY Kerry Eleveld

October 28 2009 4:20 PM ET

At a White House reception commemorating the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, President Barack Obama told about 300 civil rights leaders that the day was a milestone toward the fair treatment of all Americans.
 
"As a nation we've come far on the journey towards a more perfect union. And today, we've taken another step forward,"

Obama said. "This is the culmination of a struggle that has lasted more than a decade. Time and again, we faced opposition. Time and again, the measure was defeated or delayed. Time and again we've been reminded of the difficulty of building a nation in which we're all free to live and love as we see fit."

Judy Shepard said the law — named in honor of her son Matthew, who was killed in 1998 by two men in Wyoming — was just the beginning.

“This is the first step,” she said, tears rimming her eyes after more than 10 roller-coaster years filled with advocacy and anticipation. “We have a lot to do, we need to be grateful for this and move on.”

Asked what the day meant to her and her family, Shepard said simply, “Everything.” As she had watched the president bring the bill’s journey to completion from her front-row perch at the signing, Shepard wiped away tears flanked by Atty. Gen. Eric Holder on her left and her husband, Dennis, and their son, Logan, on her right. Despite the well of emotion, she added, “I am totally energized; it's all positive. I just can't even tell you how great it feels.”

Holder called the legislation “the next great civil rights bill” and added that it would greatly enhance his agency’s ability to prosecute hate crimes.

“This is a great tool for the Justice Department and will, I think, significantly improve the quality of life for people with disabilities, for women, and for gay and lesbian Americans,” he said just after the bill was signed into law.

The new law expands federal hate-crimes protections beyond people targeted on the basis of a their race, color, religion, or national origin to victims of bias crimes motivated by their gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.  The legislation will provide extra resources to state and local law enforcement officials, give the U.S. Justice Department the power to investigate hate crimes that local officials decline to pursue, and direct the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track hate crimes committed against transgender individuals -- statistics the FBI already keeps for other groups.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the day was a watershed moment for trans equality.

“It is the first time ever that transgender people will be respected by a federal law,” Keisling said. “Five years ago, we were told that Congress would never, and in fact could never, pass legislation that protected trans people. Thanks to strong leadership from congressional allies and the civil rights community, that myth is shattered.”

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