While there’s still a lot of work to be done, Obama’s inauguration speech clears up any lingering doubts about his commitment to LGBT rights
Had Mitt Romney won the election, the gay community would have hit a stone wall. Instead, President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration speech mentioned Stonewall, the New York City gay bar where patrons fought back against a police raid in 1969. That Obama did so while invoking Seneca Falls and Selma — cities indelibly linked to the fight for human liberty — made the speech even more significant.
The nationally televised talk in front of hundreds of thousands at the National Mall in Washington marked the first time that the word “gay” was included in an inauguration address.
“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,” Obama eloquently said in front of a sea of flag-waving citizens. “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.”
Obama’s soaring speech was as bold as it was beautiful, as moving as it was magnificent. It was an address the LGBT community had only dreamed a president delivering.
While watching, I had a Chris Matthews moment and “felt this thrill going up my leg.”
This triumphant moment is the result of decades of backbreaking work. The first breakthrough came on Saturday, March 26, 1977, when Midge Costanza, a top aide to President Jimmy Carter, invited 14 gay advocates to the White House. The event took place in the Roosevelt Room and lasted three hours. The book Out for Good discusses the risqué meeting:
“President Carter, off to Camp David, would not be there, and Midge Costanza had not told him what she was doing. She did not clear her meetings with the president, but she did list them on her schedule, which was sent to the chief of staff.”
Another milestone came in May 1992, when a gay political strategist introduced his college friend and presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, to a group of gay advocates and donors. At the Palace Theater in Hollywood, the former governor of Arkansas wowed the crowd with an emotional speech that included the famous line, “What I came here today to tell you in simple terms is, I have a vision and you are part of it.”
Unfortunately, Clinton’s vision blurred a bit when confronted with strident right-wing opposition — leading to the heinous “don’t ask, don’t tell” debacle and his signing of the odious Defense of Marriage Act.
During his re-election campaign, Obama went out on a limb (or was pushed onto it by Joe Biden) and endorsed marriage equality. Locked in a tight race, it was unclear what the ramifications might be in conservative swing states, such as Florida and Ohio. With the LGBT community firmly behind him, Obama handily won and proved that supporting marriage equality would not cost a candidate a national election.
Prior to his address, it was unknown to what extent Obama would focus on LGBT equality in his second term. Only a week prior, a virulently homophobic evangelical preacher, Louie Giglio, was chosen to give the benediction at the inauguration. After an uproar, the plug was pulled on the minister and a more inclusive holy man replaced him.
Obama’s speech cleared up any lingering doubts about his commitment to LGBT equality. He signaled that he viewed this topic as more than a political issue or a chance to mollify a boisterous special interest group. What we heard was a man who strongly considers gay rights an important legacy issue. He seems to consider achieving liberty for gay and lesbian Americans the type of accomplishment one burnishes at his presidential library.
Still, there is so much critical work to do.
For instance, Chad Griffin, President of the Human Rights Campaign, urged Obama today to “take yet another important step toward fulfilling that promise of equality by filing an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in Hollingsworth v. Perry,” the lawsuit challenging California’s marriage amendment that’s before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Obama could increase diversity by nominating an openly gay person for his Cabinet and other high-level administration jobs. Additionally, it is still legal for LGBT people to be fired because of their sexual orientation in the majority of states. Only nine states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. Reparative therapists continue to abuse children by peddling their “ex-gay” snake oil.
Inauguration Day was even more special because it occurred on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King holiday. The only thing more powerful than having a mighty dream is making it happen. Obama’s eloquent speech made the future seem brighter, the horizon limitless and our dreams of equality closer to reality.
Wayne Besen is founding executive director of Truth Wins Out, a Vermont-based nonprofit organization that fights anti-gay religious extremism. He can be reached at WBesen@TruthWinsOut.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 25, 2013.