Why Obama’s Second Inaugural Speech Is Historic for Gay Americans

With a few words, the President put a raucous but emblematic uprising in New York City on par with two much-hallowed civil rights campaigns

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Rob Carr / Reuters / Pool

President Barack Obama gives his Inauguration Address in Washington on Jan. 21, 2013.

Second Inaugurals have been remembered before, and Monday’s speech had none of the diamond-hard eloquence and blood-soaked wisdom that Abraham Lincoln mustered nearly 150 years ago when the curtain rose on his second term. But like that speech, Barack Obama’s address this week will likely be the stuff of history — and of Hollywood. Echoing Thomas Jefferson, Obama said, “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 … ”

By clearly linking the struggle for gay rights to two of the most haloed movements in U.S. history — the women’s-rights campaigns of the 19th century and the blacks’-civil-rights marches of the last century — President Obama’s speech has etched into the hearts and memories of millions of Americans the year 2013 as a moment to tell their children about. Those three moments in American history — “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” — became equal actors in the long “arc of the moral universe” that Martin Luther King Jr., in another, more controversial speech, assured his followers bends toward justice.

(PHOTOS: Let Fury Have the Hour: LIFE and the Early Days of the Fight for Gay Rights)

Both of the earlier moments referenced by Obama sought to attain greater legal rights for their participants. In 1848, it was abolitionists and women who came together at a conference in Seneca Falls, N.Y., looking to win the right to vote, among other rights, for women. And in 1965, blacks in Alabama attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery to press for their right to vote, only to be turned back almost immediately by police with clubs and tear gas. Two weeks later, armed with a federal court order, the marchers made it to the capital. Five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

Stonewall in 1969 was different. It had none of the stateliness of the older movements and none of their careful planning. It exploded when police rousted patrons of a popular gay bar called the Stonewall Inn early one Saturday morning. At the time, homosexuality was illegal in many states, and in New York City it was illegal for two men to dance together, for a bar to serve openly gay customers or for a woman to dress as a man. When a lesbian in handcuffs was tossed roughly into the waiting police van, onlookers rioted. In the ensuing melee, the police officers barricaded themselves in the bar for safety. Reinforcements arrived and calmed the crowd, but not before four officers were injured. At least 13 members of the crowd were arrested.

The riot wrecked the bar. Gay men and women and their supporters began days of vigils and by the next year held what many consider the first modern gay-rights march, a forerunner to the pride parades that are held each year in cities across the U.S. But with tossed beer bottles and angry men in drag, the riot and the ensuing protests did not draw widespread sympathy from the public. Despite its vaunted place in the hearts of gay-rights advocates, the Stonewall riots remained for most Americans an uncomfortably raucous moment, not often recalled.

(MORE: Obama’s Inaugural Speech Was Bold, but Following Through Won’t Be Easy)

That could well change as a result of Obama’s speech, as the fallout and feedback spread across Facebook and Twitter. By Monday afternoon, the impact of the speech had already begun sinking in along San Francisco’s famously gay-friendly Castro Street. Cashier John Winter says the news made his own marriage somehow more permanent, more real. Winter says he married in 2008, during a several-month window when gay marriage was legal in California. “I’m still looking for it to be recognized at the national level, though,” he says. But he’s more hopeful after hearing Monday’s speech, which had been playing over and over on the television in his shop all day. “It even makes the marriage seem stronger,” he says.

Whether his marriage is indeed strengthened remains to be seen — and in that, Obama has already had his say. The rest is up to the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments as soon as March in the two biggest gay-rights cases to reach the court in years. What impact Monday’s speech will have on their decision, and on the presumed swing vote by Anthony M. Kennedy, is unclear.

But it’s worth noting that it took 72 years after Seneca Falls for the 19th Amendment to be ratified. And despite the fast action on the Voting Rights Act, legal fights over black civil rights — from busing and school-assignment plans to affirmative action — continue.

There have been plenty of seminal moments in the legal fight for gay rights in the past few years, from the lower-court gay-marriage victories  to the opening of the military to gay soldiers. The Supreme Court decision later this year, no matter who wins, could dominate the gay-rights landscape for years to come. But what Obama did Monday was different. With a handful of words, he welcomed a group of rock-tossing, fed-up gays and lesbians — and drag queens — into the pantheon of American heroes.

Whatever happens to marriage this summer, that’s something that won’t be forgotten.

Lindenberger is a national-legal-affairs contributor to TIME.com and a 2013 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.

MORE: Obama’s Second Inaugural: A New Term, a More Progressive Tone
MORE: What You Missed While Not Watching Yesterday’s Presidential Inauguration

24 comments
JamesLoughran
JamesLoughran

Bigotry and prejudice are always on the losing side of history. Forever, in American history, this president will be known as on the wining side for this and much else.

LeslieDF
LeslieDF

"Stonewall riots remained for most Americans an uncomfortably raucous moment, not often recalled."
Go back and look at how TIME and the press reported that event.

"There have been plenty of seminal moments in the legal fight for gay rights in the past few years..."
Look at how you continue to report "history" of a certain kind.

1972 Supreme Court turns away Baker v Nelson case asking if a gay couple in Minnesota could marry.

1978 Assassination of Harvey Milk and the Dan White trial.

1992 Congressional "testimony" press reports before enactment of Don't Ask,  Don't Tell

1996 Congressional "testimony" press reports before enactment of DOMA.

1998 Slaying of Matthew Sheppard.

"But it’s worth noting that it took 72 years after Seneca Falls for the 19th Amendment to be ratified. 

Yep, when you can sensationalize a civil rights struggle, ignore the common folks whose lives are in jeopardy over the years, then, I guess, you can say "they haven't waited" long enough for "most Americans" to recall.

You do not need to "report" on another Pride Parade this June.  The Supreme Court will have something worthwhile to say, to read, to be recalled.




BJ1017
BJ1017

The government shouldn't be involved in marriage. 

gipnital
gipnital

Only two comments and both by the paranoid and the ignorant (probably not respectively either I suspect)? It's a new world people and it is getting more progressive. It is time to accept the fact that people who identify as homosexual deserve equality just as much as any of the other oppressed groups (women/minorities) and that they will achieve that recognition. President Obama's speech yesterday made me proud to be an American, and renewed my hope that we as a country can push forward and believe in freedom while recognizing that we rely on one another to create and sustain the union. Sorry (but not really) to all the revisionists and hopeless believers in the 'good old days' that were only good for a select few, the writing is on the wall.

rnance1950
rnance1950

I wonder how long it will be before, the Medical Field Actually invents a Operation for Gay Men to have Organ Implants of some sort so they can be Artificially Inseminated and have Babies with their Significant Other Gay husband or wife or whatever his role may be and also, their insurance, probalby obamacare, will be Court Ordered to Pay for the operations throughout the United States, thus mostly paid by the Taxpayers, so, get ready folks, hold on to your hats, its coming, lol, lol, lol

ArthurKaske
ArthurKaske

I think the story should read "Heterophobic Americans", not gay Americans, but then Americans would have to be honest about heterophobia, and the clinically recognized mental illness called "Gender Identity Disorder (disorientation) that the LGBT's suffer with, now wouldn't they?

bubbyZil
bubbyZil

@JamesLoughran  

Wow Buddy..............I bet you are a true success.............Right?

What a Queer!

RonCritchlow
RonCritchlow

@BJ1017  They're certainly still in marriage. (You can thank Christianity for that.)

They used to be in our marital bed too! Wasn't so long ago that a certain sexual act, undertaken with consent between a man and wife in the privacy of their own home, was illegal. (You can thank Christianity for that too.) 

LeslieDF
LeslieDF

@BJ1017 
Let me get you some more sand for your head.

Try taking your will to a church to have it read and administered (fairly).

JamesLoughran
JamesLoughran

@BJ1017 

The institution of marriage comes with over a thousand benefits and condition that are subject to laws. From licenses, taxes, inheritance, even laws surrounding divorce and separation of property. It is impossible for the government not to be involved in marriage.

JamesLoughran
JamesLoughran

@rnance1950 

My, my, my, what a detailed and inventive imagination you have. What compels you to invest such deep, emotional thoughts regarding future science particularly involving same sex people?

JamesLoughran
JamesLoughran

@ArthurKaske 

Gender disorientation is not fully recognized as an illness by the psychiatric institutions. It is considered by some as a disorder condition pertaining to transexuals, not to self identified heterosexuals, lesbians, gay men, or bisexuals. We do not know, there is no definite scientific research, to understand what  determines sexual attraction in either heterosexuals or homosexuals. Until we do, all definitions are purely conjecture.

Dylmatic
Dylmatic

@arthurkaske, Gender Identity Disorder deals with people who feel they were born to the wrong sex. I don't want to speak for every gay person out there, but the ones that I know, including myself are quite happy with our genders and orientation. . .but nice try.

JamesLoughran
JamesLoughran

@LeslieDF @BJ1017

Contracts for marriage are institutional based on government law. The Washington National Cathedral in D.C. and other episcopal churches recognize and preform same sex marriage. as well as: 

  • United Church of Christ: The United Church of Christ was the first mainstream Christian church to fully support same-sex marriage and perform marriage ceremonies. 
  • Jewish: Reform Judaism embraces same-sex marriage and rabbis can perform ceremonies.
  • Quaker: The willingness to perform gay marriages varies by meetinghouse, but there is some acceptance and performance of same-sex marriages among Quakers. 
  • Metropolitan Community Church
  • Unitarian Universalist

BJ1017
BJ1017

@JamesLoughran @BJ1017 The only laws we should be subject to is laws against hurting other people - Like Murder, robbery, and so forth.

The government has no business in my marriage.

rnance1950
rnance1950

@JamesLoughran @rnance1950 Probably from Inquisitive people like you that really agrees with me, but afraid to say so, lol, lol, lol   How Far-Fetched is what I said anyway, can you answer that one, NO, because perhaps you hope its true????

hilw33@gmail.com
hilw33@gmail.com

@Dylmatic What ignorant people don't realize is that, unlike homosexuality, being born in the wrong body IS a disorder... that's why transgendered people often seek medical treatment, such as hormone therapy and/or surgery. I have never heard of a gay person running to the doctor for an anti-queer shot.

RonCritchlow
RonCritchlow

@Dylmatic 

No, not a nice try at all! just another bigot hiding behind junk science..

BJ1017
BJ1017

@JamesLoughran @BJ1017 That's not what I'm saying. I understand they are involved,  but my point is they shouldn't be.

JamesLoughran
JamesLoughran

@BJ1017 @JamesLoughran 

You could not avoid the government in your marriage if you tried. Unless you live without a license, or joint taxes, and in a common law relationship, which isn't being "married".

JamesLoughran
JamesLoughran

@rnance1950 @JamesLoughran 

I'm completely comfortable in my sexuality and have no vested emotional interest in what others sexual extreme fantasies are. I do find it interesting how many people put so much energy  into something that is not very likely to happen and if so, like any enhancing or reparative therapy  who cares and why do you? With so many surrogates and gene splicing it is less likely to create what you suggest. But have fun with your secret thoughts anyway.