After the applause for Obama’s words died down, commentators immediately began to speculate that this might not be a speech for the ages, one that goes down in history like the Gettysburg Address, but that it was timely; a speech for where we’re at right now. Obama played on the Declaration of Independence, structuring his words around a reminder that we were all created equal. It is, after all, Martin Luther King Day, when we try to remember those things. And so it’s telling and moving that Obama chose to dedicate a fairly significant chunk of his speech to the LGBT community; it sends the message that we are who he thinks of when remembering how equal we are or are not.
Obama included Stonewall in the list of places that make it evident that we’re all created equal, along with Selma and Seneca Falls. In addition to its alliterative qualities, Stonewall has in common with Selma and Seneca Falls that it was a controversial act by a relatively powerless group that was ridiculed and despised, and one that was decried and harshly punished by the state. Martin Luther King Day is, if nothing else, a day to marvel at how the movements that the government was terrified of at the time are now celebrated, at least nominally. Maybe, Obama implies, Stonewall will make its way into history books, too. The huge role that trans* heroes played in Stonewall and in turning Stonewall into a movement wasn’t directly addressed; only the “gay” community was openly mentioned. Hopefully when the rest of the country accords Stonewall the same status as Selma, that part of its history won’t be left out.
Trans* wasn’t uttered by Obama, but his mention of Stonewall upholds the Active Resistance of trans women: Marsha & Sylvia. #girlslikeus
— Janet Mock (@janetmock) January 21, 2013
Obama also said that “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.” The end of that sentence implies mostly a reference to marriage equality, which certainly isn’t the only way in which we need to be treated equally under the law, but being addressed as “brothers and sisters” in front of the entire nation is unprecedented and meaningful. It’s been pointed out that this is the first time gay people have been recognized in an inaugural address, which is certainly true (if unsurprising. What was George W. Bush really going to say about us?).
It wasn’t just Obama’s speech that made this “the gay inauguration.” Richard Blanco, who read his poem “One Today,” is an out gay Latino poet, as well as an immigrant. He’s the first inaugural poet to occupy any of those identities, as well as the youngest inaugural poet at 44.
And in celebrating who was included in this national event, it’s also important to remember who wasn’t. You may remember that four years ago, evangelical pastor Rick Warren was invited to offer the opening prayer at Obama’s inauguration, despite virulently anti-gay views. Although Obama was roundly criticized by progressives for the choice, it was seen by many as a move that Obama thought necessary in order to reach across the aisle and try to demonstrate cooperation with right-wing social and religious conservatives. Today, the invocation was given by Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers. This year, the person tapped for the invocation wasn’t someone chosen to smooth over poltical or moral rifts and suggest that politeness towards those who disagree with us will solve our culture’s problems. Instead, Evers-Williams’ words and presence reminded us of the shameful parts of our nation’s past, reminding us of conflict and how those who actively confronted it helped make a way forward for the whole country.
Some may feel that Obama has made the misstep that many white gay activists have: conflating the struggle for equal rights for queers with the civil rights movement in a way that’s reductive and that ignores the specific injustices and activism of civil right heroes and heroines, like Dr. King himself. It’s certainly true that where many ruminations on Dr. King’s legacy operate on the assumption that the things Dr. King fought for are fully accomplished in our time, this address could have more explicitly called out all the ways in which racism is still an indefensibly present part of our nation. But the point Obama makes with this comparison is a valid one: there are some struggles for equality that our country has decided to sanctify and romanticize, albeit with a great deal of whitewashing and lies of omission. But much of the nation hasn’t managed to translate that retroactive approval to the struggles that are still ongoing, and that’s what Obama seems to be trying to say; that the time to get on the right side of history is now, while the history is in the present.
Of course it’s not possible to predict anything meaningful about Obama’s second term from his inauguration alone. But if last term’s inauguration smacked to many of forced compromise in an effort to keep the peace, this ceremony seemed to signal an administration that’s more uncompromising. An administration which is perhaps more willing to acknowledge the struggles of the marginalized people it governs, and perhaps even acknowledge the role that they themselves play in that struggle.