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

The longest serving openly gay member of Congress, Rep. Barney Frank, called the moment "bittersweet."

"It is sweet because this is the first law in American history that begins the job of protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people against prejudice," Frank said. "But it is bitter because this bill comes too late to save countless victims."

Gabi and Alec Clayton, who traveled from Washington to attend the reception, hoped the law would help save lives in the future.  Their son Bill took his own life one month after being beaten because of his bisexuality in 1995.

“He committed suicide because he didn’t think he’d ever be safe,” said Gabi Clayton, clutching a photo album of her son. “Getting this bill passed and signed is sending a message to this country that that’s not OK and we’re not going to be silent anymore and the country is going to take a stand against hate.”

In his remarks, President Obama recalled the first time such a stand was taken, in 1968, just one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

"As he signed his name, at a difficult moment for our country, President Johnson said that through this law 'the bells of freedom ring out a little louder,'" said Obama. "That is the promise of America. Over the sounds of hatred and chaos, over the din of grief and anger, we can still hear those ideals -- even when they are faint, even when some would try to drown them out."

The late senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts originally introduced the hate crimes legislation in 1997 during the 105th Congress. The bill was renamed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in honor of Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man from Wyoming, and Byrd, a 49-year-old African-American man from Texas, both of whom were brutally murdered in 1998.

Vicki Kennedy, the late senator’s wife, said seeing the legislative process finally come to completion was incredibly gratifying.

“This is something that meant so much to my husband,” she said. “He worked on this legislation for so long, I think he’s smiling right now.”

 

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