A major milestone in the fight for LGBT rights was realized on October 28 when President Obama officially signed into law the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The bill, named for Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was tortured and killed in Colorado in 1998, and James Byrd, an African-American man who was dragged from the back of a pickup truck to his death in a horrific hate crime in Texas that same year, is the first piece of federal legislation granting LGBTs protection from violent hate crimes. “No one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love. No one in America should be forced to look over their shoulder because of who they are or because they live with a disability,” President Obama remarked at the reception commemorating the passage of the initiative.
Hate crimes laws were first enacted on a local level in the late 1990s as a reaction to a documented increase in violent and/or threatening types of crimes perpetrated against individuals solely based on a defining characteristic such as race or nationality. Initial federal hate
crimes legislation, which outlawed hate crimes against people victimized on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin and gender, did not include lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Americans as a class granted protection under these laws.
The Shepard/Byrd Act—officially the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act —adds to previous federal hate crimes legislation hate or violent crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation or gender identity; the bill also adds disabled people as a class.The bill gives the Justice Department the power to investigate and prosecute incidents of violence targeted at LGBT people as hate crimes and it also allows for the use of federal funds and resources for hate crimes investigations and prosecutions.
Gay leaders, many of whom have fought for this sort of legislation for decades, were ecstatic at the passage of this historic meas- ure and applause, cheers, and occasional tears erupted at the signing. Judy Shepard, mother of murder victim Matthew Shepard, was present at the signing and later released a statement about what the bill’s passage meant to her: "When [my husband] Dennis and I started calling 10 years ago for federal action to prevent and properly prosecute hate crimes against gay, lesbian and trans- gendered Americans, we never imagined it would take this long. 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. We are incredibly grateful to Congress and the president for taking this step forward on behalf of hate-crime victims and their families, especially given the continuing attacks on people simply for liv- ing their lives openly and honestly. But each of us can and must do much more to ensure true equality for all Americans."