WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed the first major piece of federal gay rights legislation, a milestone that activists compared to the passage of 1960s civil rights legislation empowering blacks.
The new law adds acts of violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to the list of federal hate crimes.
Congress passed the hate crimes protections as an unlikely amendment to this year’s Defense Authorization Act. Obama, speaking at an emotional evening reception with supporters of the legislation, said that more than 12,000 hate crimes had been reported the past decade based on sexual orientation.
He spoke of President Lyndon Johnson signing protections for blacks in the 1960s and said this was an extension of that work.
“We must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones but to break spirits,” Obama said. “No one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love.”
Legislation barring firms from firing employees on the basis of their sexual orientation could win passage in the House of Representatives by year’s end, gay rights advocates said. More than half of U.S. states currently allow employers such freedom.
Obama has promised to push Congress to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibits being openly gay while serving. A Senate panel is expected to hold a hearing on that issue next month, and legislation could be debated next year.
Gay rights activists also hope for repeal next year of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which would give federal legitimacy to gay marriages recorded in states that allow them.
The amendment signed into law Wednesday was named partly for Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming who died after a 1998 beating targeting him because he was gay, and whose parents were instrumental in leading the fight for such legislation. The law also was named for James Byrd Jr., a black Texas man dragged to his death in a racially motivated killing the same year.
The measure also extends protections to those attacked because of their gender or disability.
Federal hate crimes law already covers race, religion and national origin. The new law strengthened it substantially, however, by removing a requirement that a victim must have been participating at the time of the assault in some federally protected activity, such as voting, for it to apply.
Critics of the legislation, including several Republican congressional leaders, argued that an attack against another person is an attack, regardless of motivation, and that no special categories are appropriate.