President Obama didn't just make history by becoming the first president to refer to "our gay brothers and sisters" in an inaugural address. Of course, that alone was a stunner -- he put gay rights on the agenda for his second term in a way that no other president had committed to before -- but by referring specifically to the Stonewall riots of 1969 in the same sentence as Seneca Falls and Selma, he put the LGBT rights struggle within the context of the great civil rights movements in American history.
Standing before Republican leaders, who are fighting against gay rights; the Supreme Court, which will be deciding on gay rights this year; and the American people, who are fast embracing gay rights, the president made it clear that there is no separating LGBT rights from the struggles for equality by women and people of color. The following passage, in which the president casts the individuals who stood up to the police at the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar that was raided in the summer of '69 -- the drag queens and the lesbians, the gay men and the transgender people -- as our "forebears," is truly amazing and powerful:
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.
President Obama rightly defined the issue of LGBT rights as one that reflects the most basic values of the founding fathers and the Declaration of Independence, which he paraphrased several times ("We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal..."). It was a challenge not only to those on the anti-gay right but to those in other civil rights movements to stand up for full equality and to see gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people as truly discriminated against in ways that are similar to the experiences of other groups that are fighting for equal treatment under the law. That may not seem like a big deal to some, but historically, the relationship between the LGBT rights movement and Democratic politicians has been tarnished by their view that LGBT people should have some rights but are somehow different from -- lesser than -- other groups seeking equality. So when the first African-American president says in an inaugural address that, no, discrimination is discrimination, that is profound.
And by proclaiming that "our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," and that "the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well," the president challenged all Americans to support marriage equality. Here is a man who, less than a year ago, was still "evolving" on the question of marriage equality and was being pressured by the very activists, like Joe Sudbay, who got him to admit that he was in the midst of a personal evolution on the issue. Now here he is, not only fully evolved, having run on the issue during his campaign for reelection and having urged voters in four states to vote for equality, but confidently and proudly saying so in his inaugural address, one of the most important, defining speeches a president can give, and telegraphing to the country and the world that they should evolve fully, too.
There's much pressure on the president to deliver on a variety of equality issues and match his words with actions: He still has not signed an executive order that would ban federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT people; his Justice Department has not filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Prop 8 case before the Supreme Court; and the military is still not equal in the aftermath of "don't ask, don't tell" repeal, with no ban on discrimination against gays in the armed forces, and there's fear that Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), will not take up the issue with force. However, by including calls for full equality and marriage rights in such a defining speech -- and making history in the process, as the first president to refer to the struggle for gay equality in his inaugural address -- President Obama has laid out a promise in perhaps the most powerful way he could.