By Susan Heavey and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday designated the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a national memorial, to honor the 49 people killed in a 2016 mass shooting, and urged Congress to pass laws explicitly protecting civil rights of LGBTQ+ people.
"We'll never fully recover, but we'll remember," Biden said as he signed legislation establishing Florida's National Pulse Memorial, joined by survivors of the shooting and lawmakers who worked on the measure.
"May ... no president ever have to sign another monument like this," he said.
A gunman stormed the popular venue, opening fire with an AR-15-style assault rifle and pistol in one of the most lethal modern mass shootings in the United States.
Biden, in a shift from his Republican predecessor, has sought to emphasize equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, officially recognizing Pride Month with a June 1 proclamation and nominating LGBTQ officials to top U.S. government posts, among other actions.
The Democratic president has also pressed for full rights for LGBTQ+ Americans, including passage of the Equality Act in Congress, noting that protections are lacking in many U.S. states.
"Our presence this afternoon makes a very strong statement: Pride is back at the White House," Biden said, after being introduced by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who is openly gay, and a young transgender man, Ashton Mota.
On Friday, he named Jessica Stern, head of the New York-based human rights group OutRight Action International, to be a special envoy at the U.S. State Department to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance include LGBTQ rights.
After signing the legislation, Biden noted that half of U.S. states do not have specific protections for LGBTQ+ Americans and their families. "We must protect the gains we've made," he said.
In Florida, authorities branded the 2016 shooting an act of extremism by a 29-year-old U.S. citizen of Afghan descent. But civil rights activists said the massacre was also a hate crime targeting gay men and Latinos frequenting the club.
The new Orlando site will join other memorials, including the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco and New York City's Stonewall Inn, a national monument commemorating what is seen as the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement following riots after police raided the gay bar in 1969.
Biden has sought to reverse course from former President Donald Trump, who did not officially recognize Pride month.
He has ordered federal agencies to protect LGBTQ people under federal anti-discrimination laws. He also reversed a Trump-era ban on transgender people openly serving in the U.S. military and on flying rainbow Pride flags at U.S. embassies.
Biden issued an executive order on Friday that required all federal agencies to evaluate the current state of diversity, equity and inclusion within their workforces and produce plans to address any issues.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Steve Holland; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Howard Goller)