Obama Signs Hate Crimes Legislation

In a ceremony held in the early evening on October 28, as Gay City News was going to press, President Barack Obama, LGBT leaders, and other advocates for hate crimes legislation were due to mark the signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The measure, which had stalled in Congress for more than a decade, adds actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity and several other categories to existing federal hate crimes law. The Justice Department is now empowered to prosecute bias-related crimes and to assist state and local governments to do the same.

The legislation is named for a gay Wyoming college student murdered in October 1998 by two men who left his battered body on a rural fence and a Texas African-American man slain when his body was dragged by a rope from the back of a truck the same year. The measure was first introduced on Capitol Hill a year before the murders for which the law is now named.

The measure was approved on October 22 in a 68-29 vote of the Senate as part of a Pentagon appropriations measure. The House approved the same bill on October 8, by a vote of 281-46. The House passed an earlier, stand-alone version of the hate crimes measure by a much narrower 249-175 vote, but the legislation was folded into the defense bill in order to stave off a GOP filibuster in the House.

The defense bill was signed into law earlier on October 28. Attorney General Eric Holder was scheduled to join Obama for the evening reception for hate crimes advocates.

In a statement released prior to the event, Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, who founded an advocacy organization named in her son’s honor, said, “The legislation went through so many versions and so many votes that we had to constantly keep our hopes in check to keep from getting discouraged. But with President Obama’s support and the continually growing bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate lining up behind the bill this year, it became clear that 2009 was the year it would finally happen.”

Shepard and her family and members of the Byrd family attended the White House event.

The hate crimes measure is the first piece of federal legislation providing specific protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.