On Jan. 20, newly re-elected President Barack Obama made history as the first president to explicitly mention gay rights in his inaugural address. Although both gay and straight news commentators focused on the historic nature of his rhetoric and the possible implications for the legality of gay marriage, no one seemed to focus on the crucial element of Obama’s nod to the queer community: the fact that he was actually talking about equality among gay and straight people.
It may seem like a small point, but a lot of national attention relating to the queer community has focused not on gay rights as a whole, but on marriage equality and other queer-specific issues. Many gay rights-related issues, such as gay adoption or separation of same-sex couples via deportation proceedings, focus on very specific, narrow areas of social life that have served as points of contention for gay rights advocates and opponents. What is so moving and important about Obama’s nod to the LGBT community is not that it paves the way for same-sex couples to marry or adopt children, but that it advocates true, full equality in all areas of life for people, regardless of sexual persuasion.
Like many other movements, the gay rights movement has suffered from historical amnesia as younger generations of activists and queer citizens have come to take for granted the most basic privileges for which their forbearers fought. Various civil rights and women’s rights pioneers have bemoaned the lack of perspective among younger generations, some going so far as to say that younger minorities and women lack the drive necessary to fight for their own rights. Older gay rights activists have likewise sought to draw a sharp contrast between our more openly friendly and tolerant society and the not-so-distant past, when gay men were murdered for openly holding hands, and AIDS was believed to be transmitted through physical contact or breathing the same air as homosexuals.
Obama recognized the power of that history of activism when he mentioned Stonewall alongside Selma and Seneca Falls as a watershed moment in the fight for equality in the United States. By doing so, he equated the struggle for gay rights with what Americans now recognize as two noble movements for basic fundamental rights among minority constituencies. In other words, a United States president has implied that the struggle for gay rights is on the right side of history.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” Obama said. “For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
Obama didn’t need to use the language that he did; he could have made a tactful, discreet mention of the issue in a cynical ploy to appease voters, as politicians often do in speeches. He didn’t have to say that all people have the right to love each other openly, causing sentimental romantics like myself to burst into tears; he could have simply made a vague allusion to gay rights, and that would have been fine. He had already made history as the first mixed-race, non-white person to be re-elected president; he had already won many voters’ approval with the occasional action relating to issues such as environmental and reproductive rights. This was his victory lap, and he didn’t have to do much more than deliver a good speech in a powerful voice. The fact that he chose instead to take the opportunity to shine light on the gay rights struggle gives me hope that he will continue to make history as the first president to make equal rights, regardless of sexual identity, or persuasion a fundamental priority, and maybe even a reality.
I hope that the queer activist community does not let Obama off the hook; we all now have heard his word on the subject, and we must hold him to it. This is not the time for small actions or for watered-down measures; now is the time to make history.