When President Obama was making his inaugural address, I was upstairs clearing out old papers and files in a back bedroom.
In fact, I was sitting on the floor cross-legged and so immersed in the documents before me – documents from when I was married, before I came out – that I momentarily forgot about the inauguration. I hadn’t seen these papers in years: my marriage certificate, my name-change approval, my divorce papers….
While history was taking place in Washington, I was going through a history of my own.
Those documents in my hands reflected my personal journey from fear to truth, from leading a straight life to living an authentic one. They also reflected how beautifully the law supports marriage. By signing one document, I was instantly married in every state in the union and granted more than 1,000 legal rights. By signing another, my union was dissolved and I was free to marry all over again.
Problem was, that divorce agreement did not liberate me as it does most people. As a gay woman, I was now forbidden from marrying anyone I loved and, in the eyes of the law, no longer equal to my former self. I was a lesser citizen, denied basic civil rights.
In his second inaugural address, the President called for the equality of gays and lesbians like no President has ever done. Even now, as I think about the transcript of his speech and reading those words “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall” my throat tightens, my eyes water.
With that line he presented a seminal moment in the history of gay rights – the Stonewall riots – as a transformative moment in American civil rights history. There is no question. The President of the United States, who is African-American, views the battle for gay rights as a battle for civil rights. As much as he can, he gets it.
It’s so personal. A friend of mine cried five times during his inauguration speech. Another wrote that he would always remember being in his car and hearing the President mention Stonewall – the way my grandmother used to say she would never forget being in her car and hearing that a man had landed on the moon.
The journalist Dan Savage said that every time he remembered what the President had said he wanted to collapse on his desk and start weeping – from gratitude.
Not everyone felt so moved. Bob Schieffer, commentator for CBS, said the President had uttered “no real memorable lines,” illustrating how easily one can overlook significant moments for the LGBT community. I would expect more awareness from Schieffer, but I don’t fault him. This sort of thing happens daily, exemplifying another reason why the President’s words on LGBT equality were so important.
The more gay rights are included on the national stage, the harder it will be to overlook them.
Utah’s unprecedented action then launched a national campaign for defining marriage as “between a man and a woman” and led to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) a year later, which, in part, invalidates recognition of same-sex couples by the federal government. By the time I was officially divorced, in 2000, more then thirty state legislatures had followed Utah and banned same-sex marriage.
Today, nearly four-fifths of the country denies marriage equality. Thirty-one states have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, with statutes restricting marriage in at least six more.
This spring the Supreme Court will weigh the constitutionality of DOMA, as well as California’s Proposition 8, both of which seek to eliminate legal recognition of same-sex marriage. These will be landmark cases for gay rights, potentially as significant as Roe v. Wade for abortion and Loving v. Virginia for interracial marriage.
No wonder it was heartening to hear the President then declare, “Our journey [for equality] 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.”
With the Supreme Court justices sitting right before him, including famously anti-gay Antonin Scalia, that was not merely bold but audacious.
Several have referenced the President’s unapologetic tone in his speech and some have said they could practically hear his heart beating as he spoke. I know I could hear mine as I came downstairs and realized the future was taking place. Richard Socarides, former Clinton White House advisor, called this second inaugural address “perhaps the most important gay-rights speech in American history.”
Whether or not that’s true, with the whole world watching, it was a call to action to end discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans.
For that we can be proud. I know I am.