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Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas E. Perez at the Cleveland LGBT Heritage Celebration

October 12, 2010

Cleveland, OH

Thank you, Jan.

In our nation, the phrase “Civil Rights” evokes powerful emotion, conjuring up iconoic visions of the 1960s, of Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, of students at lunch counters and university doors.

Sometimes forgotten when we talk about civil rights are the other movements, the other suppressed groups that have had to claw their way out from under the weight of immoral laws and misguided social mores. Women spent decades fighting for the right to vote, facing ridicule, and sometimes imprisonment, before the 19th amendment passed in 1920. Individuals with disabilities faced every day the indignities of not being able to enter public buildings or get on a public bus, they were barred from attending schools and getting jobs. Until, that is, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

From our nation’s founding, individuals have fought for their rights, facing dozens of defeats for each victory. Progress has so often been painfully incremental. But each victory, however small, was motivation enough to keep moving.

And so it has gone with the fight for LGBT equal rights. For decades now you have stood up to challenge discrimination, misconception and sometimes hatred. And hard-fought victories have been won. But the people in this room know that we have not yet reached our goal.

Which is, of course, why I’m here with you this evening. What, you must be wondering, are we doing about it?

For starters, of course, there is the new hate crimes law. Last year President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. To say this act was long in the making would be an understatement. In fact, it was 12 years ago today that Matthew Shepard died from the wounds he suffered when he was brutally attacked by two hateful individuals five days earlier.

I was involved in the effort to secure this landmark legislation since the late 90s when I worked with the late Senator Ted Kennedy on this effort.

The responsibility to enforce the new Shepard-Byrd law belongs principally to the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, and we are working closely with the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit and U.S. Attorney’s offices throughout the nation to inform federal, state and local law enforcement about the law’s new provisions. We have held training conferences in numerous cities. Today, in fact, colleagues from the Civil Rights Division, are in Iowa for a training there, which was planned in close coordination with the U.S. Attorney and FBI in Iowa. We have sponsored these conferences with the support and participation of Matthew's parents and the Laramie Police Chief, Dave O'Malley. We’ve also been held training conferences in Atlanta, Omaha, New York, Boston, Little Rock, and Indianapolis, to name a few. I can tell you that you have a dedicated U.S. Attorney here in Steve Dettelbach, and he is committed to aggressive civil rights enforcement.

Already we have opened more than 50 investigations nationwide under the new law. We’re holding trainings throughout the country to engage law enforcement and community leaders about the law, and to ensure that first responders are prepared to effectively investigate hate crimes based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. We hope that you will work with local, state and federal law enforcement officials to alert them when incidents occur and to help them better enforce the law.

No sooner had ink dried on this landmark law that Department faced a constitutional challenge to the law, which we successfully fought.

The law is remarkable not only because of the new protections it provides, but because it marks the first time that the words, “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” appear in the U.S. Code to protect civil rights.

I am confident that it won’t be the last. Passage of an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) remains a Division priority. My first testimony delivered on the Hill after my confirmation last year was in support of ENDA in the Senate. That LGBT individuals are not currently protected against discrimination in the workplace is perhaps one of the most gaping holes in our nation’s civil rights laws. We remain committed to seeing ENDA’s passage.

Meanwhile, we are using our existing authority to combat discrimination where we can.

Earlier this year, we sought to intervene in the case of an openly gay teenager from Mohawk County, New York. For two and a half years, the student was a victim of severe and pervasive student-on-student harassment because he failed to conform to gender stereotypes. From 2007 until 2009, the harassment escalated from derogatory name-calling to physical threats and violence. The student’s grades suffered. He had multiple absences because he did not feel safe at school, and he dropped one of his favorite courses to avoid one of his harassers.

The School District had knowledge of the harassment, and the complaint alleged that the school district was deliberately indifferent in its failure to take action – neither fully investigating the allegations, nor following its anti-harassment policies and procedures. The failure to address and prevent this kind of bullying from occurring violates Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits violations of students’ constitutional right to be free of harassment in school. But it also reinforces intolerant and hateful behavior by allowing it to go unpunished.

During a trip to Seattle earlier this year I had the opportunity to observe an anti-bullying program at a Middle School. The program is considered a model, and it is exactly the kind of curriculum needed to help students gain understanding about diversity and tolerance. While I was there, I had the chance to meet with the three brave students at the school who have formed a gay-straight alliance. That middle school students even feel comfortable enough to participate in such groups I think reflects remarkable progress – as Senator Franken said when I testified before his committee on ENDA last year, for his kids’ generation, being gay is about as interesting as being left-handed.

Unfortunately, the Seattle middle school more lately is looking like more of an exception than the rule, in light of the tragic series of suicides by gay teens who were bullied in school. We are actively monitoring and investigating these and other cases involving bullying and harassment of LGBT and other students, and we are working with our federal partners at the Department of Education, HHS and other agencies in the development of a national anti-bullying strategy. You can find more information on the federal government’s efforts by going to bullyinginfo.org, a new website created following the National Bullying Summit that was held this summer in Washington.

Meanwhile, we also recently settled a case involving an HIV-positive 2-year old boy. The boy’s father was undergoing cancer treatment in Mobile, Alabama, and so the family had planned a month-long vacation at the nearby Wales West RV Resort. But when the management of the family-themed RV park found out the boy is HIV-positive, they banned the family from using the common areas of the resort, including the swimming pool and showers. The family cut their vacation short. We reached a settlement under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The RV Park paid a civil penalty and adopted measures to ensure that patrons and their families are not discriminated against on the basis of disability.

I am well aware that none of these efforts are a silver bullet for LGBT civil rights. The nation’s promise of equal opportunity, equal justice and equal rights has not yet been fulfilled for LGBT individuals and their families.

But the Civil Rights Division does not shy away from great challenges. Since the Division was created in 1957, we have often been a lonely voice in the federal government working to advance policies that expand civil rights.

At one of the very first events I attended after my confirmation last year I heard the President speak about LGBT rights. And I was heartened because I believe that with his remarks, he gave us a great deal of latitude to work within the administration to advance the cause of LGBT rights.

And there is an extensive amount of activity going on within the Administration to advance LGBT rights going well beyond the big ticket items we hear about regularly. While they aren't a substitute for those big ticket items, they are still extremely important to the lives of LGBT individuals.

Whether it is domestic partner benefits as permitted by law, hospital visitation rights, Family and Medical Leave Act ability for the same-sex partners who aren't a child's legal parent, grants to study the needs of LGBT Seniors, these steps can mean a great deal to the LGBT individuals who benefit from them.

Yesterday was national coming out day. With each of our efforts to advance and protect LGBT rights, to make individuals feel safe and accepted in their communities, we are hopefully making it easier for them to come out to their families, their friends, their colleagues and their neighbors.

And we will not only use all of the tools in our arsenal to do so, but we will continue to fight to put more tools at our disposal. Thank you.

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Jocelyn Samuels
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