Obama’s Inaugural Address Calls Gays “Our Brothers and Sisters,” Incites Cautious Optimism

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.

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.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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15 Comments

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    And the trans community was involved in protest and activism before Stonewell as well: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/11/20/1038503/-Top-Comments-Remembering-Early-Transgender-Resistance-Edition.

    I suspect they might not have mentioned the trans community because trans people are still banned from the military and they didn’t want to bring up that ‘nugget of discontent’ and because ENDA isn’t going to pass for at least another 2 years if not more.

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    I think this address was well constructed and focused on history and the legacy he hopes to leave behind. I think the omission of Trans* issues was unintentional as his support for gay rights specifically is a huge progress in the nation’s social awareness in the last four years, and on a holiday significant to the African American Community it was an actual honor to have our movement included at all. I think he did a great job of weaving a picture of continued progress through compromise.

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      I don’t think anything… zero… in a presidential address is “unintentional” especially since he’s mentioned trans people and said LGBT previously. The ‘gay community’ doesn’t equal LGBTQ… you have only to look at several states (like New York) which have gay anti-discrimination protections but lack trans protections. It’s nice to talk about ‘progress through compromise’ when your group isn’t the one being compromised.

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        I agree our groups are different and we are making progress and hopefully soon legislation will address trans* issues as well. I think the administration has made great strides supporting equality for homosexuals exclusively (the military and marriage initiatives) and it has been noted that his mention of Stonewall as a matter of historical fact also includes the trans* narrative.I don’t honestly think he has time to tackle trying to change the American perspective on trans* rights as I see them as more controversial than gay rights and less well known. Also in some cases they (these laws) threaten the autonomy of females, and Women’s Rights and equality were also not mentioned specifically. At the end of the day we can go on forever about what he hasn’t mentioned, but I don’t think either of us can say that we haven’t seen progress under this President in terms of raising our collective boats.

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    I think the word “our” isolates the “gay brothers and sisters”.

    What does “our” mean?
    Belonging to us.

    In his speech, there are two “ours” that I want to look at.

    “Our journey is not complete…”

    Here, we assume that the “us” in this “our” is America: us, we, this nation, the citizens of the country that we all live in”

    The place that we have to revisit what “our” means is following that:

    “…until our gay brothers and sisters…”

    “Our” here does not still mean all citizens of this country. Here it seems to means “anyone who is not gay”.

    It’s strange, because both “our”s are used in the same sentence and are presented (and I’m sure heard) as if they are the same and as if they are unifying, but I guess I just think it is isolating.

    I hate to be a debbie downer, but it really just feels like this perpetuates the “us”, “them” mentality, which is especially disappointing when the words that follow touch on being created equal.

    By saying “our” he is not saying that we are all brothers and sisters living as equal members in the country/community that is America. He says that the gays are our brothers and sisters, but not a part of this “us” that is the group possessing in the “our”.

    Unrelated–there are clearly there are things that are not perfect that are still a step in a positive direction. This is probably one of them, but I wanted to add, also, that I feel bummed at the labeling of anyone who chooses to marry or love someone of the same sex as gay.

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      I think you are probably being overly critical of his phrasing.

      He seems to be saying “our citizens who are gay” and not something like “those gay invaders.”

      If you are describing a family member to someone and you say something like “oh, and our sister has black hair” its describing your family member who has black hair, not a stranger or someone “other.”

      I actually think it was more inclusive than anything else… reminding people that its members of their families, their communities, their country who are being denied equal rights. Sure, he could have maybe said it better, but maybe not either…

      I think I’m explaining it badly, but I’m too exhausted to do any better, sorry.

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    So, President Obama gives a video address to the Task Force’s ‘Creating Change’ conference now going on in Atlanta. And once again, it’s about gay and lesbian people with no mention of trans or bi persons. I support Obama, but this is a really ugly pattern and, in this case, delivered to a gay/queer/trans specific audience not even the general population.

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    Being from Canada, we have seen all of these fights that is talked about.

    The problem is that you can’t fight all of the battles at once, you have to fight them one at a time. With this being said, I believe that equal rights for Gay and Lesbians have to come first. After that, Trans* and Bi come next.

    If you look to Canada, we put Marriage for same-sex couples in first, and only in the last two years has Trans* and Bi rights come forward in the government.

    I am not saying the fight can’t happen at the same time, just we need to know one comes before the other in our society, which is not god but that is the way this is.

    Even though I realized recently that I am born-as-male but designated myself female, and would have liked both fights to go on at the same time. I know that each battle needs to happen one at a time as society at large hasn’t moved that far along yet.

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