A magical inaugural for the gays

As I’d noted earlier, President Obama made some rather larger mentions of gay rights in his inaugural address yesterday.

It wasn’t a terribly long speech. So it was all the more striking that the president went on along riff about gay civil rights, especially that he put the gay civil rights movement in the same category as the African-American civil rights struggle.

Stonewall, for those who might not be aware, is series of riots that took place outside a gay bar in New York city in 1969.  They’re considered the dawn of the modern gay rights movement.  For the President to mention Stonewall alongside Selma, is huge.  More on that in a moment.

Here’s what the President said in his inaugural address:

Pres. Obama giving his inaugural address in 2013.

Pres. Obama giving his inaugural address in 2013.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

The NYT’s Frank Bruni, who was seriously impressed with the gay-ness of the President’s speech, gives some historical context:

Seneca Falls is a New York town where, in 1848, the women’s suffrage movement gathered momentum. Selma is an Alabama city where, in 1965, marchers amassed, blood was shed and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood his ground against the unconscionable oppression of black Americans.

And Stonewall? This was the surprise inclusion, separating Obama’s oratory and presidency from his predecessors’ diction and deeds. It alludes to a gay bar in Manhattan that, in 1969, was raided by police, who subjected patrons to a bullying they knew too well. After the raid came riots, and after the riots came a more determined quest by L.G.B.T. Americans for the dignity they had long been denied.

Openly gay couples at the Commander in Chief's ball, one of the two official inaugural balls. The couples are: Navy Petty Officer Jen Johnston and Navy Petty Officer April Baker, Tracey Hepner and Army Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, andAir Force Lt. Josh Seefried & date. This is the first time gay couples appear at the ball without endangering their careers.

Openly gay couples at the Commander in Chief’s ball, one of the two official inaugural balls. The couples are: Navy Petty Officer Jen Johnston and Navy Petty Officer April Baker, Tracey Hepner and Army Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith, and Air Force Lt. Josh Seefried & date. This is the first time gay couples appear at the ball without endangering their careers. (Photo courtesy of Lt. Seefried.)

It’s been an ongoing issue we’ve faced in the gay rights movement, as to whether our struggle is really “civil rights.”  And we’ve not only been fighting this battle against the religious right, but against some fellow Democrats and progressives over the years.  There was a time when other civil rights groups in Washington, DC considered the gay rights group of a bit of a lesser cousin.  And it’s a feeling that the religious right, with the help of the Republicans, likes to exploit in order to not just convince the public that ours are not civil rights, but also to try to push cleavages between blacks and gays in particular, in order to hurt not just gays, but the larger Democratic coalition as well.

So when the President of the United States, who is also an African-American, states unequivocally that the Stonewall riots are in the same category as the Selma March, he affirms and re-affirms that gay rights are civil rights (and he joins the proud company of Coretta Scott King, who affirmed it over a decade ago).  And that matters.

It also matters legally. As lawyer, and gay rights advocate, Richard Socarides points out in the New Yorker:

Supreme Court on the day they heard Bush v. Gore (photo by John Aravosis)

Supreme Court on the day they heard Bush v. Gore (photo by John Aravosis)

The Supreme Court will hear in March a number of cases dealing with same-sex marriage. The Justice Department is asking the Court to declare the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages valid under state law, as unconstitutional under the equal-protection clause.

In addition, opponents of California’s Proposition 8 are asking the Court to declare a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage. That could conceivably spell the end of anti-gay-marriage state-constitutional amendments across the country. We are awaiting word as to whether the Justice Department will enter that case on behalf of gay-rights advocates. It is now almost hard to see a scenario in which it will not. But whatever happens, the President’s words today about the equality of love will be ringing in the ears of Chief Justice John Roberts, who administered the inaugural oath, and the other justices who watched Obama speak in front of the Capitol.

Richard has noted before that Supreme Court justices make decisions in a political context:

Now that the President has personally endorsed marriage equality, his own victory or loss in the election will be important to the outcome of these cases. (So will the marriage referenda on ballots in the fall—Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington.) No matter what anyone says, Justices make decisions in a political context, and if he is defeated the Supreme Court will see it as an implied repudiation by the majority of Americans of his position on gay rights. On the other hand, if he is reëlected, especially by a comfortable margin, it will assure the Supreme Court Justices that being in favor of gay rights, and gay marriage in particular, is not institutionally toxic. (Amy Davidson posted about this after the recent court decisions.)

It also matters vitally that American cultural leaders continue to express public support for marriage equality. This is especially so for “unlikely suspects”—Republicans and independents who otherwise have more traditionally conservative views. Every time a Bush or a Cheney, or a sports figure or Wall Streeter, says they support the right to marry, others will give it new look, and many will come along. All of this helps to create a political environment where gay rights are seen as mainstream (because they are now).

So it matters, a lot, what the President said yesterday. It also matters at the ballot box.  A lot of people think that gay marriage, in Maryland especially this past November, passed in part because the President came out for gay marriage months earlier, making it easier for African-American to embrace, or at least not oppose as much as they have in the past, our cause.

Heckuva a turnaround from four years when the inaugural included that horrible homophobe Rick Warren.  It’s also a big turnaround from our concerns of only a few weeks ago, when another anti-gay preacher, Louie Giglio, was to give the benediction. As Kerry Eleveld noted, the President fixed that problem, and then some:

Rev. Giglio pulled his name from the inaugural program and the spokesperson for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, Addie Whisenant, said, “We were not aware of Pastor Giglio’s past comments at the time of his selection and they don’t reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this Inaugural.”

In one fell swoop, that statement put to rest the history with both Warren and McClurkin, and asserted a new standard: Homophobia will no longer be absolved in the name of diversity and improper vetting is no excuse for an unwillingness to take a stand.

It’s a major affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans across the country. For the first time, they will later this month be able to unreservedly revel in the induction of a president whom many of them admire and appreciate. And that has the makings of a far more magical inauguration.

Lt. Seefried and date at the CIC Inaugural ball, doing what every other couple does at such balls, but gay military couples never could - until now.

Lt. Seefried and date at the CIC Inaugural ball, doing what every other couple does at such balls, but gay military couples never could – until now. (Via Facebook.)

Team Obama took what was brewing into a gay rights disaster, and – oh let’s mix our metaphors, shall we – made pink lemonade. They took the gay community’s renewed disappointment about yet another inaugural apparently gone bad, turned it around, and hit a home run.

Socarides says that the President’s address yesterday could be America’s most important gay rights speech to date.  And I think he’s right.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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