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.

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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.

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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.

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