Each October, we celebrate the many contributions of our nation's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. It is an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come in the ongoing struggle for LGBT rights, as well as rededicate ourselves to achieving true equality for all Americans.
In 1994, a Missouri high school history teacher named Rodney Wilson decided to take action after finding out that textbooks failed to address LGBT issues. He organized a grassroots network of teachers and community leaders and together they created LGBT History Month, which coincides with another important LGBT tradition – National Coming Out Day on October 11. Thanks to Mr. Wilson's courage and initiative, more and more educators are now including LGBT history as part of their curricula and school programming.
In recent years, the LGBT community has experienced some major victories. Just last month, we realized another major milestone in the fight for equality. On September 20, 2011, the discriminatory "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law was officially repealed. After nearly 18 long years, the brave men and women of our Armed Forces are now free to serve their country honestly and openly, without the constant fear of being discharged based solely on their sexual orientation. Furthermore, in 2009, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named in memory of the 21-year old University of Wyoming student who was brutally tortured and murdered in 1998 because he was gay. This legislation is a testament to our resolve to end violence based on prejudice and hate and to guarantee that all Americans need not live in fear because of who they are.
While the LGBT community has certainly made great strides towards true equality over the years, there is still much work left to do to ensure that all Americans are being treated equally. LGBT individuals are still discriminated against in areas such as marriage rights and employment opportunities. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and, for federal purposes, defines marriage as between one man and one woman as husband and wife. DOMA is a discriminatory law that denies legally married same-sex couples the over 1,100 critical rights, benefits, and protections that the federal government affords heterosexual couples. That is why I am proud to be an original co-sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA. In addition, I am also a proud original co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which simply affords to all Americans basic employment protection from discrimination based on irrational prejudice, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Finally, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the growing number of suicides by LGBT youth. These tragedies make it clear that our schools, colleges, and universities are inadequately equipped to address bullying and support for LGBT students. We must do more to prevent bullying and suicide amongst our young people, which is why I am an original co-sponsor of both the Student Non-Discrimination Act of 2011 and the Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2011. I would also like to commend the tremendous work being done by the It Gets Better Project and other organizations in support of LGBT youth. Together with my colleagues in Congress and the Obama administration, I will continue working to prevent bullying, in all its forms, before it is too late for one more young person.
LGBT history is more than just the story of one community; it is part of the American experience. This LGBT History Month, it is my sincere hope that our nation as a whole will soon recognize the equal rights of all Americans and reflect this in our laws at the federal, state, and local levels.