D.C. Diary: Federal LGBT Hate Crimes Legislation Signing


Guestblogger COREY JOHNSON

Yesterday was an historic day for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. The hate crimes measure named in honor of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. which was signed by President Obama in an early afternoon ceremony yesterday in the East Room at the White House modifies the 1969 federal hate-crime law covering crimes motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion or national origin, expanding it to cover gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

This is the first piece of federal legislation signed into law that explicitly covers LGBT citizens. Advocates for this law have been fighting since 1999 to pass the measure but with Republicans controlling Congress from 1995 until 2007 and President Bush, who opposed the measure, holding office until early 2009 — this year was the first opportunity for the stars to align.

Hate crimes protections have had broad support with the American public and before today had existed in a patchwork-form in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

Perhaps members of the House and Senate are now closer to realizing that voting for pro-LGBT pieces of legislation will not be detrimental to their re-election chances and that doing so is the right, fair and just thing to do.

The irony of the signing ceremony, complete with military commanders, members of the House and Senate who oversee military issues, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, was that it looked more like what you'd envision for the signing of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Nonetheless, I felt lucky to be able to bear witness as a credentialed member of the media.

Signing2 At the David Bohnett Foundation-sponsored reception later, attended by the Shepard and Byrd families, energy was palpable and emotions ran high among advocates who have waited for this moment for a very long time. Approximately 150 activists, movement leaders, donors and openly gay staffers from the administration were in attendance.

A partial list of folks that caught my eye were; Ray Buckley who is the Democratic State Chair in New Hampshire and Vice-Chair of the Democration National Committee, long-time civil rights leader and blogger David Mixner, Richard Socarides from the Clinton White House years, Mara Keisling the head of the National Transgender Center for Equality, one of the grandfathers from our movement — Frank Kameny, Cathy Renna, who works with and helps various local and national gay and lesbian organizations, all three openly gay members of Congress — Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin and Jared Polis, Elizabeth Birch who was the former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign and current president of the HRC Joe Solmonese, recording artist and ally Cyndi Lauper, Chuck Wolfe who leads the Victory Fund, Fred Hochberg who is the administration's appointee to lead the Export-Import Bank, Melissa Sklarz who co-chairs the National Stonewall Democrats board, the President's appointee to run the Office of Personnel Management John Berry, as well as various other folks. Standing at the back of the room were White House Chief of Staff Rahmn Emanuel and Senior Advisor to the President David Axelrod. Attorney General Eric Holder and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett were also present.

Now the question becomes: when will the array of other bills (an inclusive-Employment Non-Discrimination Act, repeal of both Don't Ask-Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, the Uniting American Families Act) be acted upon by Congress? And will President Obama speak openly and forcefully in letting members of Congress now that these bills are a priority (just like he has on health care reform and climate change) and should be passed?

LGBT citizens need to do their part as well — which means placing phone calls, writing letters, visiting Representatives and Senators offices to let them know that the time is now. Our families, friends and co-workers should do the same.

I came out to my family in March of 1999 and I distinctly remember that six months earlier a young man in Wyoming was brutally murdered because of his sexual orientation. It was an honor to witness history more than a decade later and it was especially gratifying to see all of hard work that Judy Shepard, Dennis Shepard, Betty Byrd Boatner and Louvon Harris' work finally come to fruition.

Yesterday was a meaningful day in the journey for civil rights — but it was only a first step. It's my hope that sooner rather than later President Obama will be signing a similar bill with Chairman Mullen and Secretary Gates standing behind him but we will only get there with his leadership on these crucial issues.


  1. 24play says

    Rethink your priorities, Corey.

    Yes, the fight to repeal DADT gets a hell of a lot of media coverage, because it’s a stinging injustice. But passage of ENDA should be a much, much higher priority—right up there with marriage rights at the top of the LGBT agenda.

    Fortunately, ENDA is teed up for debate, voting, and, I hope, passage in both houses this winter.


  2. busytimmy says

    I agree. ENDA would have a much broader effect on the lives of LGBT folks than marriage rights. The institution of marriage affords many privileges that aren’t available to single people. ENDA & DADT are top priority on my book. Get those done first.

  3. Mike says

    It’s so weird how some assume that THEIR priorities are everyone’s priorities in LGBT rights. Frankly, I’m not looking to get married or join the military any time soon… not everyone does… but I do appreciate laws meant to protect me from hate crimes and employee discrimination. I want DADT and DOMA to be repealed as much as anyone, but this and ENDA affect me much more directly.

  4. Michael @ LeonardMatlovich.com says

    “we will only get there with his leadership on these crucial issues”

    AMEN, to that, Corey! Great that you were invited to the signing of this one. And I look forward to the day when you’re also witness to the signing of a DADT repeal bill that hopefully and rightfully … in the same spirit that this one was named for Matthew Shepard and James Byrd … will be named for Leonard Matlovich.

  5. JohnInManhattan says

    It’s so weird to read self-centered prick comments like MIKE’s.

    Frankly, it’s not about you. It’s about equality for ALL. Frankly, you may not be looking to get married (quelle surprise!), but that doesn’t lessen the fact that GLBT families are suffering daily because of DOMA. Frankly, you may not want to join the military but Dan Choi did and now he’s suffering because of DADT.

    You’re more interested in issues that affect you “much more directly”? How utterly Republican.

    It’s called multi-tasking. A novel approach usually lost on dolts like you.

  6. Corey Johnson says

    I just want to be clear about something — I was not ranking the repeal of DADT over ENDA. All of these bill are priorities.

    I mentioned that I look forward to the day that all of these crucial and important pieces of legislation are passed by the Congress and signed by the President.

    The point of discussing the military aspect was that it was just an ironic juxtaposition to have this LGBT related bill being attached to the Defense Department’s Authorization and signed at a ceremony that was centered on military policy.

    The next time I’m an event like that with military leaders — I hope it’s for the repeal of DADT.

    But of course, I believe, that ENDA will be next. Hearings are scheduled for November in the Senate and Tammy Baldwin told me yesterday that she believes it will pass the House and Senate before the end of the year. I hope she’s right.

    All of these issues are important and there are still issues of inequality that our community faces that aren’t addressed in any of the bills that are currently on our radar. These bills are just the starting point and a very important one.

  7. Rowan says

    @Corey J

    Rather you than me dealing with these irrationals that have no clue about how society works….

  8. dbux says

    Neither ENDA nor the hate crimes inclusion will prevent any crimes. They provide for recourse in the event a LGBT person is attacked or discriminated against. Repeal of DOMA and DADT on the other hand stand to immediately change the lives of LGBTs by opening up new opportunities and guaranteeing real equality before the law. I’m with Andrew Sullivan on this one: ENDA and hate crimes confirm our status as victims and provide protection against victimization. Repeal of DADT and DOMA confirm our status as equal citizens.

    I prefer being an equal citizen to being a victim. Just sayin’.

  9. Andrew says

    Passing laws does not create equality. It only punishes bad behavior. If we want to create equality we must change minds. Laws do not do that. Never have, never will.