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President Obama Signs Expanded Federal Hate Crimes Bill into Law

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As President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act at the White House this afternoon, civil rights advocates and the families of those who have been victims of anti-LGBT hate crimes expressed their pride and thanks for the promise of federal consequences for any and all such future crimes, while noting that this landmark is not an endpoint. 

rsz_obama_signing_croppedFirst introduced in 1996 after the brutal killing of college student Matthew Shepard, the bill passed the senate on October 22 with a 68-29 vote, and has finally landed on the President’s desk after a 13-year struggle.  It is now a federal hate crime to assault an individual based on the person’s actual or perceived gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation.  As NPR’s Ari Shapiro reported, the new law will also allow the Justice Department to help state and local officials prosecute hate crimes by providing funding and personnel assistance.

Later this evening, President Obama will host a signing ceremony in the East Room, accompanied by Attorney General Eric Holder, LGBT advocates, lawmakers, and families of past hate crime victims.  In addition to Matthew Shepard’s family, the families of Sean Kennedy and Jimmy Wheeler – both victims of anti-gay beatings which led to their deaths – will also be in attendance.

While President Obama reserved extensive commentary about the signing until this evening’s event, he prefaced it by saying:

“After more than a decade of opposition and delay, we’ve passed inclusive hate-crime legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray, or who they are.”

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Jimmy’s mother, Susan Wheeler, appeared on CNN’s The Situation Room on Tuesday and shared her feelings on the legislation: “I feel like this is a triumph for not just members of the gay community, but for us a civilization.  It shows that we value all life.”

Sean’s mother, Elke Kennedy, who has received media training and advice from GLAAD during the past two years she has spent educating communities and schools about LGBT harassment and violence, told CNN, “This is a huge milestone, but it is not the end of the fight.”

In GLAAD’s statement today, president Jarrett Barrios said of the law’s passage:

“This is a landmark step in eliminating the kind of hate motivated violence that has taken the lives of so many in our community including Brandon Teena, Matthew Shepard, Fred Martinez, Gwen Araujo, Sakia Gunn, Sean Kennedy, Angie Zapata, Duanna Johnson, Lateisha Green and so many others. The visibility of these tragic losses and the conversations that they sparked brought us to today’s historic step toward ending this violence.”

You can view GLAAD’s full statement here.