The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community has been frustrated with President Obama in his first 10 months in office, since his administration has not yet repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell and has dragged its feet on -- and even defended -- the Defense of Marriage Act.
But Wednesday marked President Obama's first major action when it comes to equal rights for gays, as he signed the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extends federal hate crime protections to those based on a person's sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.
The measure is named after Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was tortured and killed in 1998, and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death that same year. Democrats, including the late Ted Kennedy, had tried for years to pass such legislation, but met stiff opposition on several occasions.
The solution? Add the bill as an amendment to a defense appropriations bill. That way, when Republicans voted against the bill on the basis of their opposition to the Shepard bill -- which they did -- Democrats could point out Republican hypocrisy in noting how they voted against a defense bill after crowing on an on about defending the country.
So not only does the Shepard bill make good policy in the fight for civil rights, but it could be politically shrewd for the Democrats -- which is good, when one considers how convoluted and complicated the health care reform fight has become.
Still, ignoring the health care fight for a moment, Wednesday's signing ceremony is a victory for gay rights advocates. DADT and DOMA are still on the books, and they do need to be addressed, but Congress and President Obama took a huge first step with the passage of the Shepard bill. By extending hate crime protections to the GLBT community, as well as those who are physically or mentally disabled, this administration is sending a strong message that violence rooted in intolerance of any kind is unacceptable.
Bravo, Mr. President. Thank you.
Video of the signing ceremony: