Thursday, October 29, 2009

One Small Step

President Obama signed the defense appropriations bill yesterday. Tucked into the bill was an amendment that added provisions to hate crime legislation that now includes sexual orientation.

Obama signed the bill in the East Room, adding some fanfare to draw attention to his message of fiscal responsibility and support for the military.

He spoke more personally about the new civil rights protections. A priority of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., that had been on the congressional agenda for a decade, the measure is named for Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming college student murdered 11 years ago.

Obama acknowledged Shepard’s mom, Judy, and remembered that he had told her this day would come. He also gave a nod to Kennedy’s family. Going forward, Obama promised, people will be protected from violence based on “what they look like, who they love, how they pray or why they are.”

“This is a landmark step in eliminating the kind of hate motivated violence that has taken the lives of so many in our community,” said Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

The expansion has long been sought by civil rights and gay rights groups. Conservatives have opposed it, arguing that it creates a special class of victims. They also have been concerned that it could silence clergymen or others opposed to homosexuality on religious or philosophical grounds.

I suppose we in the LGBT community should be glad that we have a president who is willing to sign the bill with the protections, and I am. But I’m also disappointed that the political and social climate is such that it had to be attached as an amendment to a must-pass bill; stand-alone legislation adding the protections would never have passed on its own. I also think it tells us a lot about the Religious Right; they were more concerned about being able to still preach their bigotry than they were about the lives and safety of their fellow men and women. (Footnote to Rep. Pence: Gays and lesbians are Americans, too.) So much for the Christian admonishment to “love they neighbor.”

I didn’t expect instant change from the new administration and Congress, and I’m still hoping that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell will go by the boards, along with the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act if the courts don’t strike it down. I have argued in the past that patience is necessary and that change will come. The passage of the bill, even if it had to be shoehorned into law this way, is a small but significant start. Let’s not stop there.

Further thoughts: Andrew Sullivan got worked up yesterday when President Obama spoke at the signing ceremony and didn’t mention the word “gay” or “lesbian.” Maybe that’s because the words “gay” or “lesbian” don’t appear in the bill. The law specifies “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” which is more than just gay or lesbian; it’s everybody.

While I certainly appreciate all the work that Mr. Sullivan has done for the LGBT community and his principled stand for marriage equality, I’m also getting tired of him acting like he is the de facto spokesperson for the community and that everyone must measure up to his standards. As John Cole points out at Balloon Juice, it sounds like Mr. Sullivan did not really bother to read the bill before he trashed it. But I suppose that if you are opposed to the idea of hate crime legislation from the beginning, then you probably don’t have to bother with that small step.