Traveling to Washington for the reception at the White House for the Shepard/Byrd - Hate Crimes Bill signing, I understood the historic significance of the day. For the first time in my life and I guess anyone's life - the President of the United States was going to sign into a law a piece of positive legislation about LGBT rights. For years, I have grown used to past presidents signing such bills as DOMA and DADT or the oppressive Jessie Helms amendments from the 1980's. So the reality of such a historic first was actually hard to intellectually comprehend.
Going to the White House is not a new experience for me - my first visit to the West Wing was in the 1960's. Ironically, the people that had me most to the White House until President Clinton was Richard Nixon's ship of fools. However, no matter how many times walking into the building, there is a sense of awe and certainly a sense of history. The building has the capacity to never grow old. No matter who the occupant, it will always be the people's house. We are just letting the presidents use it. They might forget it but we should never forget it is our house.
The president had actually signed the legislation earlier in a small signing ceremony in the Rose Garden. My guess is since it was a military approbation bill and hate crimes was a mere 'rider/amendment', it was hard for political reasons to have a huge signing of the legislation without mixing in with the military where we are still not allowed to serve. The reception, sponsored by the David Bohnett Foundation, was held in the foyer at the entrance of the White House. Immediately, I was struck that the portrait of President Lyndon Johnson had made a return to a place of honor on the Grand Staircase. Times do change even for dead presidents. Wonder how many portraits have been moved in and out of storage over the years as administrations change?
The cast of characters at the White House was predictable, holding few surprises - the heads of national organizations and some key staff. They were mixed with open LGBT people who are powerful lobbyists now such as Steven Elmendorf and Robert Rabin along with Congresswoman Baldwin and Congressman Frank. The usual other players included those who had the money to buy their way in over the years in the Democratic Party. Maybe the big surprise of the day was given my critical columns over the last weeks, that I was even invited. But let me be clear, I was glad to be there on this historic day.
First Judy and Dennis Shepard with their son Logan entered with two members of James Byrd's family (the African American man who was brutally slain by being dragged behind a truck in Jasper, Texas). They stood behind President Obama as he made his usual eloquent and powerful remarks about hate, the consequences and his zero tolerance for it. For me, while appreciating his remarks, I could not get the Shepards and Byrds out of my mind. Here were two families ripped apart by the worst brutality one can imagine and now they were honored guests in the White House and on stage with the president. The sight was so emotional and overwhelming especially as the two families hugged and co-mingled. In that moment, the hate that resulted in the deaths of their loved ones was vanquished to the dark pages of history where it belongs.
There would be no hate crimes bill if it weren't for two people. First, Senator Edward Kennedy who for over two decades did everything within his powers to get this legislation passed. His absence physically made the moment even more overwhelming and emotional. This was his bill, his day and his passion. The other person is Judy Shepard who for ten years of her life has devoted herself to pass this legislation in honor of her lovely son who was crucified on a prairie fence. What an ending for Judy and her family. All that work, all those hours, all those moments forced to relive her son's death in order to seek justice came together in a bittersweet victory for her. One would have to have a cold heart not to have tears in your eyes for both.
The presence of Attorney General Eric Holder and his refusal to take a stand on Maine reminded me (as if I needed reminded) of how much more we have to do and how far we have to go. But for the first time in my life, I saw a bill supporting our struggle signed into law. For that brief moment, it felt just wonderful. I could get use to it.