Obama signs hate crimes bill

Posted on 23 Oct 2009 at 10:49am
By By Lisa Keen | Keen News Service LisaKeen@aol.com

Senate vote approving measure topped week of new LGBT gains, including grant to assist older LGBTs, new HUD regulations

President Barack Obama

President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Bill into law on Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 28, by putting his signature on a defense spending bill to which the hate crimes measure had been added as an amendment.

The president then attended a reception at the White House commemorating passage of the historic legislation. Judy and Dennis Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard, attended the signing ceremony and the reception. Their son was killed in October 1998 in one of the most widely-publicized anti-gay murders ever, and the couple have been at the forefront of efforts to pass a federal hate crimes measure that included protections for LGBT people ever since.

The U.S. Senate, on Thursday evening, Oct. 22, voted 68 to 29 to approve the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010, to which the hate crimes bill had been attached in July. The House of Representatives had approved the measure earlier this month.

The vote, which Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said was “our nation’s first major piece of civil rights legislation” for LGBT people, was part of a wave of change that seems to be rising in Washington.

The Obama administration last week unveiled several new initiatives aimed at eliminating discrimination against LGBT people, and the Ryan White AIDS assistance program was re-authorized for another four years.

The hate crimes provision accounts for about $5 million worth of funding inside the $681 billion defense bill.

Efforts to pass the measure in the past had been hampered by promises that then-President George W. Bush would veto it.

Change in attitude
But the door that was closed to LGBT people under the Bush administration has clearly been opened under President Obama.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced Wednesday, Oct. 21 that the department is establishing an annual grant of $250,000 to create “the nation’s first national resource center to assist communities across the country in their efforts to provide services and supports for older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.”

A press release from HHS says that the office will provide “information, assistance and resources” to both LGBT and “mainstream” groups working with people 60 and older “to assist them in the development and provision of culturally sensitive supports and services” to LGBT people.

“The LGBT Center will also be available to educate the LGBT community about the importance of planning ahead for future long term care needs,” said the HHS press statement.

HHS estimates that between 1.5 million and 4 million LGBT people are 60 or older. The grant to establish an LGBT Resource Center will be awarded under the HHS’s Administration on Aging.

And the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Wednesday that it will “propose new regulations that will clarify family status to ensure its subsidized housing programs are available to all families, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The proposed new regulations, which must go through a period of public comment, seek also to require that HUD grant recipients comply with local and state laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity; and that applicants for federally insured mortgage loans are not discriminated against based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

HUD also announced that it will launch a “first-ever national study of discrimination against members of the LGBT community in the rental and sale of housing.”

The new regulations and the study will both be “fast-tracked,” according to a statement issued by HUD on Wednesday.

HUD noted that some local studies of housing discrimination against LGBT people have been undertaken. It cited a study by the Michigan Fair Housing Centers that found that nearly 30 percent of same-sex couples “were treated differently when attempting to buy or rent a home.”

“The evidence is clear that some are denied the opportunity to make housing choices in our nation based on who they are,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, in the statement, “and that must end. President Obama and I are determined that a qualified individual and family will not be denied housing choice based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The White House had no comment on the developments, but a number of organizations took some credit for the HUD and HHS proposals, having lobbied the administration for them from the start.

A “New Beginning Initiative,” by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and SAFE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders), coordinated advocacy on LGBT aging issues within federal agencies. And the Human Rights Campaign included HUD proposals as part of its “Blueprint for Positive Change” document to the administration.

Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of Family Equality Council, a national LGBT group, said in a statement that she believes the HUD initiatives were in response to President Obama’s directive in June that all federal agencies identify opportunities for ensuring equality for LGBT people.

“We applaud Secretary Donovan for his leadership and President Obama for following through on his promise,” said Chrisler.

Ryan White reauthorized
Also this week, the House and Senate agreed upon and approved a final version of the HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act of 2009, enabling the program to be extended for another four years.

The program provides medical care and medication to more than half a million people with low incomes to have HIV infection. The bill passed the Senate on Monday, Oct. 19 on the chamber’s unanimous consent agenda; it passed the House Wednesday by a vote of 408 to 9.

But, as The AIDS Institute was quick to note, re-authorizing the Ryan White program is step one; funding it is step two.

“We now must work with the Administration and the Congress to properly fund the program,” said Institute Executive Director Michael Ruppal. “With state and local budget cuts, people losing their health insurance due to the economic downturn, and expanded testing programs, additional federal resources will be a necessity.”

Ruppal said the House has proposed a $54 million increase in Ryan White’s current $2.2 billion budget; the Senate is proposing a $35 million increase.

The full Senate has yet to vote on its appropriations. Ruppal characterized either proposed increase as “minimal.”

Scrutiny continues
Many organizations and activists jumped to applaud the pro-LGBT developments this week.

Legal activist Nan Hunter, at hunterforjustice.com, said the HUD initiatives are “exactly the kind of progressive regulatory step that the administration should be taking” and said she hopes to see other agencies soon follow suit.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said, “We are so pleased that the Obama administration continues to express through both action and words that it is committed to making sure that all federal government programs are accessible to all people.”

Sharon J. Lettman, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, called the HUD initiative a “very positive development,” and expressed confidence “the LGBT community can look forward to from this President.”
Still, many continued to push for more.

Paul Sousa, head of a Massachusetts LGBT group called Join the Impact, said plans for a protest Friday, Oct. 23, outside a speech by President Obama in Boston would go forward.

The developments this week, he said, “are definitely movement in the right direction” but do not qualify Obama as a “fierce advocate” of LGBT equal rights.
President Obama described himself as a “fierce advocate for gay and lesbian Americans” in December in defending criticism of his invitation to evangelical Rick Warren to deliver his inaugural invocation.

Richard Socarides, a longtime gay Democratic activist who served in the Clinton White House, said he thinks this week’s developments are “terrific” and that the administration “deserves a lot of credit.”

But, he added, “they need to focus now on ENDA, Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell, and DOMA.”

© 2009 Keen News Service

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 23, 2009.

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