Matthew Shepard Bill Signed Into Law

At 2:51pm today, President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which included the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. After eleven years of public battle to add sexuality and gender identity to existing hate crimes laws, we finally have in place a federal law that ensures that violence against LGBT people will not be swept under the carpet like it has so often.

Judy Shepard, mother of one of the slaughtered men this law is named for, released the following statement (excerpted) through the Matthew Shepard Foundation:

“When Dennis and I started calling 10 years ago for federal action to prevent and properly prosecute hate crimes against gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans, we never imagined it would take this long,” said Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother and the president of the Matthew Shepard Foundation Board of Directors.

“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,” she continued. “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.”

The legislation allows federal authorities to pursue charges in violent crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability, in cases where local authorities cannot or will not secure appropriate convictions. It also opens up federal aid to local law enforcement for training, prevention and investigation.

“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 living their lives openly and honestly,” Shepard added. “But each of us can and must do much more to ensure true equality for all Americans.”

1976 - 1998
Matthew Shepard
1976 - 1998

Elke Kennedy, whose son Sean was murdered just two years ago but whose convicted killer is already a free man, spoke last night with CNN:

Obama is to sign the measure, which was added to a $680 billion defense authorization bill, on Wednesday. Kennedy and her husband were driving Tuesday night from their home in Greenville to the nation’s capital, where they were planning to witness the ceremony.

“We are going there representing so many people,” she said. “People who have been murdered and are dealing with the harassment and bullying and violence on a daily basis.”

But Kennedy said her work does not end with the president’s signature.

“This is a huge milestone, but it is not the end of the fight,” she said. “We have to change the hearts and minds.”

Toward that end, she has spoken at 34 colleges and universities “to educate these kids about what hate and violence and bullying can do and give them options and teach them non-violent conflict resolution.”

But she expressed frustration that elementary schools have not allowed her to address their students, to send them the message that ends each of her talks: “No mother should ever have to bury her child, no mother should ever have to lose her child to hate or violence and no mother should ever have to fight for justice for her child.”

Sean Kennedy 1987 - 2007
Sean Kennedy
1987 - 2007

As Dan Savage said last week on Anderson Cooper 360, this new law doesn’t put a force field around us. It doesn’t protect us before a crime is committed and I won’t be retiring my Hate Crimes category any time soon. What it does do, though, is offer federal aid if local authorities are unwilling to vigorously prosecute killers, (like in Sean Kennedy’s and more recently Tony Hunter’s cases) and provide local police with resources (like in Matthew Shepard’s case).

This is a major victory, one that we fought long and hard for (even when our so-called leaders didn’t like it) (not that I’m bitter). A reception will be held in celebration at the White House around 6:00 tonight, and I’m glad they’ll be there to celebrate.

But even better, we can celebrate each time a criminal serves a just sentence for their crimes.

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