Yesterday President Obama made history by signing one of the first pieces of federal gay rights legislation named The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a move that many are comparing to the 1960’s civil rights legislation that empowered African Americans. The law states that crimes against gay, lesbian, and transgenders will now be constituted as hate crimes, and tried as such. The law also protects those who are attacked because of their gender or disability. Gay rights groups and activists have been pressing the Obama administration to pass laws such as this one and others concerning work place discrimination and the protection homosexuals in the military by holding rallies around the country.
In a signing ceremony in the White House East Room, Obama said that the gay rights protections represented a “long-awaited change” that would protect people who are victimized because of “who they love . . . or who they are.”
Signed into law in the White House’s East Room, the legislation was named after James Byrd Jr. who was dragged by car in a racially motivated killing in 1988 and Matthew Shepard, the 21 year old University of Wyoming student that was tortured and beat for being gay, and whose parents were at the forefront of the battle to create such a law. The law also removed the stipulation that a victim must be participating in some federally protected activity, such as voting, for the law to protect them.
The Shepards’ fight took a decade. With recent elections adding more lawmakers who are supportive of gay rights, by 2007 the Congress had sufficient votes to pass the legislation, but then-President George W. Bush indicated that he would veto it. Obama, campaigning last year, promised to sign it.
Other gay rights legislation is currently being put into place with laws barring the termination of employees based on their sexual orientation slated to win passage in the House of Representatives by years end, which is something that desperately needs to happen seeing as half of the American states currently give employers that freedom. Obama has already asked to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy adopted by the military, which prohibits being openly homosexual while serving. The Senate panel is holding a hearing next month with legislation being discussed as early as next year.