President Obama's State of the Union address was a clarion call to the American people, warning that the forces of intolerance and bigotry are out there, trying to exploit our fears and have us turn to the dark side.
The president was mostly referring to Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and other GOP candidates, but one person served as the specter of bigotry right there in the chamber: Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who was jailed after refusing to issue marriage licenses after the Supreme Court's historic ruling on marriage equality. She was there as the guest of anti-gay Republican congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio. She later told reporters she was there to "encourage Christians."
Davis sat there as the president heralded the fact that "we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love." And she was there when the president spoke hopefully about the future, about "voices Dr. King believed would have the final word -- voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love." Examples of those voices, the president said, included "the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is, and the father whose love for that son overrides everything he's been taught."
It was one of the few times in which the president has spoken about gay people beyond the issue of rights and rather about the day-to-day struggles and the pain of living in the closet. It was an emotional connection. In addition to being the president, Obama is a father who has himself evolved. Now he was empathizing with a father who indeed evolves because of his love for his son. And the president acknowledged the "courage" of that son for coming out in the face of the bigotry that continues to be ever-present.
Kim Davis hardly applauded or showed any emotion throughout the president's entire speech. But her stone-faced silence was enough to show us that those who will try to take away LGBT rights that have been won -- and prevent further rights that are desperately needed -- are out there, planning and plotting, and proud to show their faces to "encourage" others who would discriminate.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 27 states are likely to consider anti-LGBT bills in 2016, coming off of the major loss of an anti-discrimination law at the ballot in Houston last November. In Indiana, Governor Mike Pence seems to have forgotten about the firestorm last year over the discriminatory Religious Restoration Freedom Act that the GOP legislature passed (and which was revised after negative media attention). Pence outraged LGBT activists this week when he said in his State of the State address, "I will not support any bill that diminishes the religious freedom of Hoosiers or interferes with the constitutional rights of our citizens to live out their beliefs in worship, service or work." It was, to many, a shot across the bow against any broad protections for LGBT people without religious exemptions. He may be counting on the media's fickleness, since the kind of firestorm that erupted last year has yet to transpire again, and other states passed anti-LGBT bills last year under the media's radar.
So, we should actually be thankful to Kim Davis for attending the State of the Union. She was yet another indicator that those who, as the president said last night, "scapegoat fellow citizens," are gathering their forces, telling Americans to "respond to the changes of our time with fear" and to "fear the future." Much of the president's speech was about the forces of abject bigotry on the current political stage and how we can't underestimate them. Kim Davis's presence in the chamber served to underscore his warning.