One of the advantages of age is that you no longer need history texts to put history into context. For instance, after the assassination of President Kennedy, I delved into the earlier assassinations in American history. Having lived through that, then the Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy murders, I no longer needed textbooks to know how to feel about those atrocities. The lived experience was far more searing than any history or recreation would ever be.
Standing on the Capitol grounds listening to Obama's second inaugural address, I heard the president say:
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, just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone, to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
The president, 150 years after Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and 50 years after Dr. King's grand moment on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, named a Methodist church in upstate New York, a bridge in Alabama and a bar in Greenwich Village as way stations along America's road toward fully upholding the ideal that all are created equal. Not only did he highlight the unalterable link between the LGBT civil rights movement and both the women's and African-American civil rights movements, which has the potential to revise the way black and white Americans engage with the LGBT rights movement, but he alliteratively identified our quest for equal rights as gay and trans Americans as part of the fundamental quest for freedom that is America. I can't imagine any rhetorical device more powerful than that.
I am a veteran of language wars with black fellow activists in the progressive community. For years there have been arguments and debates over whether LGBT rights are truly civil rights or "merely" human rights. Personally, I have always believed that human rights trump civil rights, because we push for freedom and equality even in regions of the globe where there is nothing that could be considered "civil" society. The Declaration of Independence, which the president paraphrased, begins, "When in the course of human events," further emphasizing the precedence of human society over civil society. But I'm also aware that, at least in progressive circles, the term "civil rights" has a resonance that is unmatched in engaging allies today, particularly those who are African-American and for whom the experience of the '60s is a part of their soul, such as Washington Post editorial writer Eugene Robinson. When I'm able to tell my story in the language of the '60s (and in the language of Jewish history, which was often borrowed by the black community during the '60s and in centuries prior and used to remarkable effect, particularly when used poetically), I find that not only is support given but zeal develops that reminds me of those years. Ben Jealous and Julian Bond, the NAACP's current and former presidents, respectively, are wonderfully adept at this rhetorical technique.
The president's words, however, struck me to the core. Just as I became an accidental activist when I transitioned, I was an accidental participant in the Stonewall uprising when I stumbled upon the chaos when I was trying to attend a concert at the Village Vanguard on the night of June 28, 1969. Having been there -- confused, panicked, hiding my true self from my girlfriend, fearful of exposure yet drawn to this eruption of anger from my community -- I couldn't help but reflect on those days as I listened to the second inaugural address of an African-American president of the United States nearly 44 years later. I know this sounds hackneyed, but the uplifting spirit of those words, particularly for those of us who've fought for civil and women's rights, is simply indescribable.
It has been noted that the president did not use the word "transgender." I noticed that, too, but I paid it little mind. I know that not only has the president done a remarkable amount of good for trans people (in some cases more sweepingly than for cis gay people), we were also there at Stonewall. We have had disputes over who cast the first stone at the bar, but what is not in dispute is that trans women and gender-transgressive drag queens played an integral part, perhaps even a leading role, in the uprising. So when the president links Stonewall with Selma (which also happens to be my mother's name) and Seneca Falls, I feel that he's speaking to me as well as all my gay friends and allies.
Old barriers are falling, and new alliances are being formed. This inaugural address was the first since 1964 that I would call "liberal-minded." It's about time. As an adolescent I had hoped, even expected, to grow up in an increasingly progressive society. That hope was not realized, but I am beginning to believe that my children will fare far better in that respect than I did. And there is nothing more satisfying to a liberal-minded parent than that.