After more than 10 years of effort, LGBT activists saw President Obama sign the hate crimes act into law in October.
The Hate Crimes Act: The 1998 hate crime murders of African-American James Byrd Jr. and gay man Matthew Shepard focused national attention on a debate that raged for more than 10 years as LGBT rights supporters advocated for a comprehensive federal hate crimes bill that included LGBT people, and opponents warned that such legislation could interfere with free speech rights and religious liberty. The battle finally ended on Oct. 28 this year when President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The legislation authorizes the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violence by giving the DOJ jurisdiction over violent crimes where a perpetrator has selected a victim because of the person’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
The first version of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act was introduced in Congress in 1997, even before Shepard and Byrd were murdered. But each effort through the years failed, passing one house of Congress but being defeated in the other.
Prospects looked better in 2008 when supportive members of Congress planned to attach the hate crimes bill to the Department of Defensive authorization bill, hoping to force the hand of then-President George W. Bush, who opposed hate crimes legislation that included LGBT people.But Bush pushed back, warning that he would veto the DOD bill if it included the hate crimes amendment. And Congress gave in and removed it.
Then came 2009 and the inauguration of President Obama, who had courted the LGBT community throughout his campaign with promises to support hate crimes legislation, along with repeal of the military’s anti-gay ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
The House passed the hate crimes bill on April 29 on a 249-175 vote. Nearly three months later, on July 16, the Senate voted 63-28 to add the hate crimes bill as an amendment to the DoD authorization bill. The amended DoD authorization bill passed the Senate seven days later, on July 23.
During a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the DoD authorization bill the hate crimes provision was named in honor of Shepard and Byrd. The final version of the DoD authorization bill, containing the HCPA, passed the House on Oct. 8 and the Senate on Oct. 22.
President Obama signed the measure into law six days later in a 2:30 p.m. ceremony with DoD officials and members of Congress in attendance. He mentioned during that afternoon signing ceremony that the bill included the hate crimes act, but held a separate reception later that afternoon to focus specifically on the enactment — at last — of the hate crimes bill.
"After more than a decade of opposition and delay, we’ve passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray or who they are," Obama said during the signing ceremony.
But less than a month later, even as LGBT rights advocates were still celebrating the long-awaited passage of the federal hate crimes act and the president’s signature on it, came brutal reminders that just having the law on the books would not stop hate crimes, as two gay teens were murdered within days of each other.
On Nov. 18, the body of 19-year-old Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was found on the side of the road near Cayey, Puerto Rico. He had been stabbed, decapitated, dismembered and burned. Juan A. Martinez Matos, 26, soon confessed to the crime, telling authorities he had picked up the younger man, who had been dressed in women’s clothing, and lost control when he realized Lopez Mercado was actually male.
Jason Mattison Jr., 15, was a gay Baltimore high school student whose body was found stuffed in a closet at his aunt’s home on Nov. 10. He had been bound, raped and stabbed repeatedly. Dante Parrish, 35, was later arrested and charged in Mattison’s murder.
That same week, 16-year-old gay high schooler Jayron Martin of Houston was chased down and severely beaten by classmates who said they were going to "beat the gay out of him." The attack happened after Martin got off the school bus one day, even though he had already told two assistant principals and the bus driver that the boys planned to assault him.
On Monday, Nov. 23, the FBI released its latest report on hate crimes in the United States. The report showed that while hate crimes overall were up by only about 2 percent in 2008, compared to 2007, anti-gay hate crimes over that same period went up by about 11 percent.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 1, 2010.