Savor the Moment (2)

Savor the Moment

Expectations about how far and how fast President Obama can escort gay Americans
down the road to full equality are so high that it’s easy to underappreciate
reaching major milestones along the way.

But savor this: The president of the United States – for the first time
ever – has signed protections for gay and transgender Americans into law.

The measure expanding the nation’s hate crime law was tucked into a large,
unrelated bill. But Obama didn’t want the historic moment to pass unacknowledged,
so he hosted a special reception Oct. 28 to mark the bittersweet achievement
of passing legislation named for two men killed by mindless hatred.

The president noted that “as a nation we’ve come far on the journey towards
a more perfect union. And today we’ve taken another step forward.”

One very important step.

“At root, this isn’t just about our laws; this is about who we are as
a people,” Obama said of adding sexual orientation, gender identity, gender
and disability to a law dating from 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson signed
federal protections against crimes based on racial or religious hatred in the
wake of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“This is about whether we value one another – whether we embrace
our differences,” Obama continued. “We have for centuries strived
to live up to our founding ideal, of a nation where all are free and equal and
able to pursue their own version of happiness. … We have endured and grown
stronger and fairer and freer. And at every turn, we’ve made progress not only
changing laws but by changing hearts, by our willingness to walk in another’s
shoes, by our capacity to love and accept even in the face of rage and bigotry.”

Beside Obama at the White House were relatives of Matthew Shepard and James
Byrd Jr., whose brutal 1998 murders intensified the push for tougher hate crimes
laws.

Shepard was a 21-year-old college student just getting a foothold in life when
he was tied to a Wyoming fence and beaten so savaged that he died later of brain
trauma. Byrd, a 49-year-old black man, was chained by his ankles to the back
of a pickup truck in Texas and dragged to his death.

The new law, the first federal acknowledgement of transgender people, sends
a loud message that in America hate-motivated crimes will not be tolerated.
For nearly two decades, the FBI has included anti-gay attacks in the hate crimes
it tracks, thanks to the Hate Crimes Statistics Act that President George H.W.
Bush signed.

Including victims targeted because of their sexual orientation was so controversial
back in 1990 that Congress ironically used that measure to take cruel swipes
at those of us who’re gay, including stating, “Nothing in this Act shall
be construed, nor shall any funds be appropriated to carry out the purpose of
the Act be used to promote or encourage homosexuality.”

The difference between that sort of animosity and Obama’s respectful, inclusive
tone was not lost on 84-year-old reception guest Frank Kameny, who picketed
the White House for gay rights in 1965: “It’s a start in a long list of
things to come from President Obama. It’s just the start.”

Openly gay Rep. Tammy Baldwin feels similarly optimistic. “Having the
first civil rights measure protecting the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender)
community signed into law really has a bigger impact than one law alone. It
has a transformative effect,” she said.

Baldwin predicts that “going forward, we will see much more rapid movement”
on bills to ban anti-LGBT job discrimination, repeal the military ban on openly
gay soldiers and extend benefits to gay federal workers’ partners.

A milestone isn’t a finish line, but gay and gay-friendly Americans can take
heart from the direction Obama is already leading the nation.

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