The Day We Were Included

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President Barack Obama giving his inaugural speech on January 21, 2013. (Source: ABC News)

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;”

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law--for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

The inclusion of these two statements in President Barack Obama’s second inauguration speech was historic. The statements were majestically sweeping, declarative and inclusive, a landmark for LGBT citizens there and around the world. 

Adept in history, Obama, in a speech heard by tens of millions around the world, breathtakingly elevated Stonewall–the June 1969 riots by gays, lesbians and transgenders against the New York City police after they were harassed in a bar that bore the name--to equal standing with Seneca (New York) and Selma (Alabama), two very important sites and historical junctures in American history for the struggles for equality by women and African Americans. 

Connecting these three events, hardly known just several decades ago, was not awkward. White abolitionists and black radicals were present and supportive of the Seneca Falls meeting. White activists, gays and lesbians, linked arms with black demonstrators in Selma, and Stonewall would not have started the gay liberation movement without the support of thousands of New Yorkers. 

Past American presidents were patently homophobic, indifferent, or lukewarm to even acknowledging the presence of LGBTs in America’s midst. In the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the FBI, with White House approval, snooped on suspected homosexuals to expose or deny them work. President Ronald Reagan adhered to Christian morals and that condemn homosexuality–and its lifestyle–as an abomination. With that mindset, he refused to address the AIDS epidemic that ravaged the gay community in the early ‘80s. It would take 41,000 deaths and over 70,000 infections, the actions of militant groups like ACT UP, and the likes of Elizabeth Taylor raising money for AIDS research to make Reagan recognize the scourge.

President Jimmy Carter met with gay activists with little fanfare and was decent enough to oppose a California amendment banning gays from teaching in public schools. President Bill Clinton tried to allow gays in the military but faced opposition and settled for the lame “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” arrangement. You could serve and die for your country, but don’t tell anyone who you are. He did get the gay James Hormel an ambassadorship to Luxembourg through a recess appointment.

For the first time, a President recognized our battles and affirmed and exalted our right to love.

President George W. Bush, the son, was known to have gay friends. But in the end, Bush was intractably opposed to gay marriage, and made this position his campaign promise. (Failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney later followed suit.) In retrospect, given where the gay vote went, Republicans lost to Obama twice over many issues, the more significant being marriage equality.

Obama, reluctant on his first term, would declare support for gay marriage in his last campaign. No timid “civil-union” posturing. Without needing to campaign any longer and beholden to none except history, Obama's pronouncement made him diametrically opposed to the Vatican and numerous countries around the world that still criminalize, even execute people for homosexual acts.

The way Obama phrased his support for gay marriage was touching. No perfunctory legalese for him. He personally spoke to his audience of the struggle of “my gay brothers and sisters,” asserting in logical simplicity, that if Americans assent to the God-invoked premise that all are created equal, then “surely”–he gently chides–their capacity and right to love shouldn’t lack as well. He did not utter “gay marriage” because it is loaded with controversy. Instead, he harked to love being universal and, the Pope notwithstanding, who would quibble with that?

When Obama finished his speech, several performers sang songs like "My Country ‘Tis of Thee" and the American National Anthem. For the first time, a President recognized our battles and affirmed and exalted our right to love. 

When James Taylor sang the haunting "America the Beautiful," revering “spacious skies, amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties…” the lyrics clutched at me.

“…And crown thy good with brotherhood, From sea to shining sea.” 

The words resonated with me for the first time. America now, felt all encompassing.

Author John J. Silva

Author John J. Silva

John L. Silva is an author and writer and currently the Executive Director of the Ortigas Foundation.