‘Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall:’ LGBT rights are civil rights

Presidential inauguration days are often filled with pomp, circumstance, cheering crowds, and moments to remember, but rarely do they so perfectly illustrate a dramatic shift in our country’s understanding and acceptance of cultural changes. 

The second inauguration of President Barack Obama did just that. 

While many news outlets are rightly praising the historic first-ever inclusion of the word “gay” in an inauguration speech by a President, the larger and fuller inclusion of LGBT people and their struggle for equality is perhaps the bigger, and less discussed, historic moment.

To be sure, having our President call for full equality for gay Americans in what is one of the biggest and most viewed speeches of his Presidency is monumental. 

President Barack Obama waves to crowd after his Inaugural speech at the ceremonial swearing-in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Scott Andrews, Pool)
President Barack Obama waves to crowd after his Inaugural speech at the ceremonial swearing-in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Monday, Jan. 21, 2013.
Photo: Scott Andrews, Pool/Associated Press

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

This was said not only before the entire nation, but mere feet away from the Supreme Court justices who are deciding two historic cases for marriage equality this term, the Prop 8 case and the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

But beyond the meaningful, and not to be downplayed, name check of gay equality, was a more far-reaching inclusion of the struggle for LGBT equality in the civil rights history of the United States itself.

“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.” 

With this thundering line, President Obama gave equal recognition to our shared civil rights struggles, from women’s suffrage to African-American civil rights to LGBT equality.  He took the story of the LGBT community’s fight for equality and folded it completely into the fabric of what America really means.

This inclusion goes beyond simple words. 

For the first black President, on both his second inauguration and on the federal holiday recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to so completely embrace the LGBT rights struggle as part of our common experience turned the page on the idea of “gay rights as special rights” that so many opponents of equality use to one of a shared American quest for civil rights and justice under the law.

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There are moments in history when a speech can transcend beyond just words and actually become action — and that is precisely what weaving the story of the Stonewall Riots (which birthed the modern LGBT rights movement) into the American experience of “becoming a more perfect union” did. 

The fight for LGBT equality is no longer the story of a small group seeking rights, it became part of the American story of civil rights and freedom.

This fuller integration and recognition of LGBT Americans was apparent not only in the historic words spoken, but in those chosen to speak and participate in the inauguration itself. 

The first openly gay inauguration poet, Richard Blanco, delivered his poem “One Today.”  The Rev. Luis Leon of St. John’s Episcopal Church in D.C. delivered the benediction and made reference to gay Americans in the prayer (replacing Rev. Louie Giglio, who withdrew from the ceremony shortly after protests over an anti-gay sermon he delivered in the mid 1990s surfaced). 

Even Michelle Obama’s inaugural ball gown was made by openly gay designer Jason Wu.

As the President said, our journey is not complete.  But what we witnessed on inauguration day was a dramatic shift, and a long fought for victory of inclusion and recognition. 

Our fight — the fight of LGBT people over the decades to fully live the American dream– is truly an American endeavor that we all must take part in.

The spirit of Stonewall was alive and well at the inauguration — and it lives on to carry us forward in the fights ahead.

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