Monday’s inauguration was not the first time Barack Obama referenced the 1969 Stonewall riots that sparked the gay rights revolution. He cited Stonewall in Gay Pride Month proclamations as senator in 2007 and as president in 2009.
So has Michelle Obama. In 2008, the future first lady told the Democratic National Committee’s Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council, “We are all only here because of those who marched and bled and died, from Selma to Stonewall, in the pursuit of a more perfect union.”
So it was no intellectual leap for Obama to say in his second inaugural address that the nation’s creed of equality “guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” Still, it was a historic thrust of courage. It was the first time a president has mentioned gay rights in an inaugural speech, equating the movement for equality to other civil rights movements in American history. It was also the close of a chapter on Obama’s personal views about gay rights, from his initial ambivalence to his full embrace of an epochal, controversial social movement.
In doing so, he joined an exclusive set of presidents who evolved and reacted to social upheaval in reasonably real time. That is perhaps why President Lincoln remains so revered for the Emancipation Proclamation, with his moral struggle over how to end slavery remaining the subject of modern cinema.
Conversely, lack of courage has its price. Surely we would remember Andrew Johnson and Rutherford B. Hayes more had they stood up for the rights of newly freed blacks instead of letting the South return to racist rule. Who other than a straight-A civics student remembers that Woodrow Wilson presided over the passage of women’s suffrage? It was perhaps because he was shamed into support.
In modern times, similar things could be said of Richard Nixon, whose important role in launching affirmative action was obscured by Watergate and his white Southern strategy. Ronald Reagan is barely mentioned anymore for signing the Martin Luther King holiday into law because his administration tried so hard to dismantle what King fought for.
Obama’s proclamation for gay rights may likely fall somewhere between Lincoln and the various civil rights interventions of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Like all of them, Obama battled personal ambivalence and political consequences.
In 1996 he wrote that he favored legalizing same-sex marriages as an Illinois state Senate candidate. But in his first appearance in New Hampshire for the 2008 presidential race, he said he was for civil unions, not gay marriage.
During the primaries, Obama, as well as rival Hillary Clinton, were heavily criticized by gay activists when they were slow to condemn the statement that homosexuality was immoral by then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace. Early in his presidency, Obama followed through on one major pledge, signing legislation to end the ban on openly gay soldiers in December 2010. But despite saying he opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows the federal government to ignore legal gay marriages, his Justice Department continued to defend it until 2011.
Ultimately, Obama could see where the country was headed without his help. Over the decade, support for gay marriage rose from 30 percent to more than half. Many states legalized gay marriage.
And then Vice President Joe Biden put Obama on the spot last May by saying he was “comfortable” with gay marriage. In an election year, Biden’s proclamation reportedly enraged senior White House staffers, but a few days later Obama publicy supported gay marriage. The most touching part of his announcement was when he noted how his daughters have friends with same-sex parents, and “it couldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them.” Listening to the next generation, Obama made sense of gay rights for the entire nation.