By Kerry Eleveld
Originally published on Advocate.com October 28 2009 5:20 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.”
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.”