Washington President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed the first major piece of federal gay rights legislation, a milestone that activists compared to the passage of 1960s civil rights legislation empowering blacks.
The new law adds acts of violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to the list of federal hate crimes. Gay rights activists voiced hope that the Obama administration would advance more issues, including legislation to bar workplace discrimination, allow military service and recognize same-sex marriages.
Congress passed the hate crimes protections as an unlikely amendment to this year’s Defense Authorization Act. In a signing ceremony in the White House East Room, Obama said that the gay rights protections represented a “long-awaited change” that would protect people who are victimized because of “who they love ... or who they are.”
Legislation barring firms from firing employees on the basis of their sexual orientation could win passage in the House of Representatives by year’s end, gay rights advocates said. More than half of U.S. states currently allow employers such freedom.
Obama has promised to push Congress to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibits being openly gay while serving. A Senate panel is expected to hold a hearing on that issue next month, and legislation could be debated next year.
Gay rights activists also hope for repeal next year of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which would give federal legitimacy to gay marriages recorded in states that allow them.
The amendment signed into law Wednesday was named partly for Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming who died after a 1998 beating targeting him because he was gay, and whose parents were instrumental in leading the fight for such legislation. The law also was named for James Byrd Jr., a black Texas man dragged to his death in a racially motivated killing the same year.
The measure also extends protections to those attacked because of their gender or disability.
Federal hate crimes law already covers race, religion and national origin.