Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is finally law

Earlier this afternoon, in a well attended White House ceremony, President Barack Obama signed the Defense Authorization bill into law. Included as an attachment to this bill is The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. With President Obama’s historic signature on the larger bill, the first Federal law to explicitly extend protections to all transsexuals is now law.

I agree with National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling’s observation that this is a powerful day as the United States government, for the first time, stands up and declares that violence against transgender people is wrong and will not be tolerated in our country," Many people who are unfamiliar with the transgender community and its social milieu cannot fully grasp the palpable fear too many community members must live with on a daily basis. This fear starts with the fear of becoming a violent crime victim because of who they are. It them extends to the all-too-real risk of extended periods of unemployment and forced homelessness, again because of who they are. This law will make adequate prosecution of violent criminal acts committed because of “how they pray, who they love or who they are” as President Obama observed before signing the bill into law.

One point cannot be stressed enough: this hate crimes law extension addresses violent criminal acts exclusively. It does not render illegal acts of hate speech. So the claims from the deluded right that this law erodes (or repeals) both freedom of speech and freedom of religion by restricting what can be said from the pulpit are flat out wrong.

I continue to struggle with understanding how those who identify themselves as Christians can condone deliberate acts of violence against their fellow man. I grew up in a Christian family, have embraced the Faith in the past, and have read the Bible many times. The impression I have always had is that Christianity is a faith deeply rooted in love and tolerance. This is best seen in Christ’s commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In all of the years of meditatively reading the New Testament, I have never seen any list of allowable exemptions from this commandment. So where is all of this Christian Right hatred coming from?

As the NCTE e-mail announcing this law’s signing stresses, the new law adds sexual orientation, gender identity, gender and disability to existing law. With specific regard to the transsexuals, the new law:
will help educate law enforcement about the frequent hate violence against transgender people and the need to prevent and appropriately address it;
will help provide federal expertise and resources when they are needed to overcome a lack of resources or the willful inaction on the part of local and/or state law enforcement; and
will help educate the public that violence against anyone, including transgender people, is unacceptable and illegal.
All of these aspects of the law are positive steps forward for the transgender community, as well as the larger GLBT and disabled communities.

Joe Solomonese of the Human Rights Campaign also has issued an e-mail celebrating this historic milestone. He points out that this milestone has been reached only as a result of constant efforts over the last decade by literally countless concerned citizens. These efforts have been spearheaded by Matthew Shepard’s parents, who were able to attend the signing ceremony. In his opening remarks, President Obama recognized their efforts and stated that during an earlier meeting with them in the Oval Office he “promised them that this day would come.”

Now that Federal law finally protects the GLBT community instead of supporting various forms of discrimination, the real work needs to begin. Next up are the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which bars employment-related discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Bills that would bring this protection into begin have been introduced in the House of Representatives. Only through concerted grass-roots lobbying by those of us who support it will it have any chance of becoming law.

But ENDA isn’t the only pressing issue on Congress’ plate. Equally important are repeal of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (or DOMA) that may have made sense at one time, but increasingly has grown into an irritating relic of a less enlightened era. Likewise the Military’s ill-advised “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that effectively closes off military service to the entire GLBT community needs to be repealed sooner rather than later.

So, while tonight is a time for celebrating today’s historic accomplishment, in reality the work is just beginning.

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