As I stood watching President Obama make his remarks about the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Act at the White House yesterday, I was struck by the history of the moment and also caught up in the emotion of the moment, both personally and for our community. After working on so many horrific hate crimes and knowing colleagues who continue to deal with the epidemic of violence against our community, I would have never imagined it would take over a decade for this legislation to finally be signed. But here we were, finally.
We had a spot behind the speakers, in the back corner of the stage. Myself, my wife, Moises Kaufman and Jeffrey LaHoste (founders of the Tectonic Theater Project, which created the Laramie Project), huddled teary-eyed. I had a wave of memories wash over me, people who we have lost to hate violence like Matt, Sakia Gunn, Fred Martinez and so many others. But it was my conversation with the two women behind us that really hit home.
It's easy for us to say it, but, as two women, straight allies who work at the Department of Justice put it: "This is long overdue." And I said right back to them "And this is only the beginning."
This is just the beginning of the kind of progress we have been waiting on for over a decade.
For starters, last week we saw the Obama administration put into place some less sexy but very important pieces of policy, thanks to the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services.
HHS announced it will establish the nation's first national resource center for the support of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender senior citizens. LGBT older adults are finally being recognized more in our community and this development from HHS is tremendous.
HUD introduced a series of proposals ensuring its housing programs do not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The changes would clarify that the term "family," when referring to beneficiaries for housing or voucher programs and would include eligible LGBT individuals and couples. This is particularly important for lower income LGBT families, another extremely invisible and neglected part of our community.
But back to the hate crimes act. Let's be clear: this is the first piece of Federal legislation to recognize the LGBT community ever, as well as providing tracking and remedy for the hate and violence we experience because of who we are and who we love. I am thrilled that is was inclusive of gender identity, making all of the struggle within our movement about trans issues and inclusive legislation worth the pain and challenge it put us through. I expect less struggle over this - we present a united front and explain the important and intersections of sexual orientation and people get it.
But as we all stood there, I kept thinking that this is only the beginning - in so many ways. The Shepard/Byrd Act now empowers the federal government to better track hate crimes, support local jurisdictions struggling with the financial challenges a high profile hate crime can put on a town (trust me, I watch the Laramie police almost bankrupt themselves to make sure they got the investigation right and did their jobs through the trials to keep us all safe) and also step in when local law enforcement is not willing to do their jobs (I have seen plenty of that too).
But the real work still lies ahead - this is simply a message of support, recognition and resources - we still have much to do to end the epidemic of violence we face. Our culture has changed tremendously for the better, but there is still a long way to go, we all know that, since we see incident like the recent beating of Jack Price in Queens, NY. This will continue to happen but we now have better tools to deal with it.
But this certainly feels like the beginning of the sea change we have wanted and needed after a decade of neglect, rejection and hostility by the Bush Administration.
I also hope that our community can take a breath and pause to acknowledge this moment and the hard work of the Shepard family, the Byrd family, the other families of hate crime victims (many who were there yesterday), and our advocacy organizations both local and national that helped make this happen. Let's not jockey over who "made is happen." We all did - from the Shepards to our organizations to every kid who came out to their parents in the past decade. This is our victory.
Seeing Judy and Dennis Shepard hug the sisters of James Byrd, Jr., that image burned in my memory as the one to take away from this. We need our allies. We need to do a better job working across issues and communities. I watched the president's face as he saw them embrace and hold each other for an extended period of time. I saw sincerity, care and hope. I have never doubted the President's sincerity, just just his ability to execute give the challenges he faces. I dislike how some on our community are so hostile towards him, accusing him of throwing us under the bus. Last time I checked we elected him President, not King. I too am impatient and still angry about the things most of us are - Rick Warren, DOMA brief, etc. But this is the beginning of the end.
Today, we get back on the horse and continue our work, pushing for movement on ENDA, DADT, DOMA and the other issues we care about. But let's take a moment to acknowledge that we have, I think, finally begun the journey all of us have been craving since Obama took office. It is, as my new friends from DOJ said, been a long time coming.