The late Matthew Shepard

The House of Representatives in Washington has passed legislation to expand existing federal hate crimes law – which currently addresses hate crimes committed against people based on their race, colour, religion and national origin – to also protect people based on their actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act is also known as the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act; named after the 21-year-old college student who was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in Wyoming in October 1998.

“No one should face violence simply because of who they are,” said Judy Shepard, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and Matthew’s mother. “This bill is a critical step to erasing the hate that has devastated far too many families.”

President Barack Obama urged Congress, hours before the vote, to pass the legislation. “I urge members on both sides of the aisle to act on this important civil rights issue by passing this legislation to protect all of our citizens from violent acts of intolerance – legislation that will enhance civil rights protections, while also protecting our freedom of speech and association.”

Prior to the vote, during a debate against the bill, Congresswoman Virginia Foxx claimed that the hate crime murder of Matthew Shepard was a “hoax”.

“The hate crimes bill that’s called the Matthew Shepard Bill is named after a very unfortunate incident that happened where a young man was killed. But we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery,” she said.

“It wasn’t because he was gay. The bill was named for him, the hate crimes bill was named for him, but it’s, it’s really a hoax, that that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills.”

In response, GLAAD President Neil G. Giuliano said in a statement: “Congresswoman Foxx’s comments are repugnant and should be condemned by all fair-minded people in the strongest possible terms. We urge media to expose Foxx’s falsehood and her malicious disregard for the basic facts of this case.”

It’s been reported that 16.6 percent of all American hate crimes in 2007 were violent crimes based on sexual orientation.

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