US President Barack Obama has signed a historic hate crime bill that includes sexual orientation and gender identity into law.

Obama approved The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was recently passed by the US congress, on Wednesday in front of an audience of around 150 people.

“After more than a decade of opposition and delay, we’ve passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray, or who they are,” said Obama before signing the bill.

The act is named after Matthew Shepard, a gay student who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998, and James Byrd Jr, an African American man who was dragged to death behind a pickup truck by three men in Texas.

“I promised Judy Shepard, when she saw me in the Oval Office, that this day would come, and I’m glad that she and her husband Dennis could join us for this event. I’m also honoured to have the family of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who fought so hard for this legislation… So, with that, I’m going to sign this piece of legislation.”

In a statement issued after the ceremony, Shepard’s mother, Judy, said that after tens years of struggling to enact the legislation “we never imagined it would take this long.”

She went on to say: “We are incredibly grateful to Congress and the president for taking this step forward on behalf of hate crime victims and their families, especially given the continuing attacks on people simply for living their lives openly and honestly. But each of us can and must do much more to ensure true equality for all Americans.”

America’s biggest LGBT rights group, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), applauded Obama’s signing of the legislation.

“This law honours our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters whose lives were cut short because of hate,” said HRC President Joe Solmonese.

“Today’s signing of the first major piece of civil rights legislation to protect LGBT Americans represents a historic milestone in the inevitable march towards equality, he added.

The act will give the US Justice Department the power to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violence where the perpetrator has selected the victim because of the person’s actual or perceived race, colour, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

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