After taking the oath of office on a Bible once owned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama used his second inaugural address Monday to make an emphatic call for gay rights, elevating the movement to iconic civil rights battles for racial and gender equality.
The president’s references to an influential 19th-century women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y.; a bloody voting rights clash in 1965 in Selma, Ala.; and Stonewall Inn, the scene of a 1969 uprising by gay men in a bar in New York’s Greenwich Village thrilled gay rights advocates, whose efforts to compare their struggles for equality to those of blacks and women have been long met with bitter controversy. And at least one scholar saw them as historic.
“It was an extraordinary moment,” Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian, said by telephone from Washington Monday. “Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall — those were iconic moments that transformed the attitudes of people in this country. . . . And then, he went on to speak of the unfinished journey” toward gay rights.
Goodwin, a Concord resident, called Obama’s inaugural address a “catalyzing moment” for gay rights that could also influence the legacy of the nation’s first black president.
“And, then to call for the need for further work, to make sure gays and lesbians have equal rights, it’s an historic thing that I think will be looked back on, along with everything else that happened in the last decade, as an important chapter” in Obama’s legacy.
Obama in the past has called for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage between a man and a woman. His speech, delivered on the day the nation celebrated King’s 84th birthday, went a step further, calling for the love shared by “our gay brothers and sisters” to be treated equally 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 president stated.
In Massachusetts, the first state in the nation to legalize gay marriage, Obama’s bold statement surprised people watching the address on television, from places as diverse as a noisy diner in the South End to the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum in Dorchester.
“He’s taken the gloves off,” remarked a man seated in a darkened theater of the JFK Library, where visitors watched Obama’s address on a big screen.
“It came after mentioning Stonewall,” said another man, seated beside him.
At Victoria’s Diner in the South End, patrons issued a collective “wow” and started cheering when Obama made the historic reference, said Linda DeMarco, president of the Boston Pride Committee .
“I had a chill going through my body, I was just so proud,” DeMarco said, recalling her noontime visit to the diner. “My phone started beeping like crazy. People were texting, posting to Facebook. It was one of those statements, that you just didn’t really expect to hear in an inaugural address.”
But advocates of traditional, heterosexual marriage found the president’s remarks troublesome.
“We certainly agree that all Americans should have equal rights, no matter who they are,” said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a nonprofit based in Woburn. “Our laws, particularly our federal laws, state that marriage is only between a man and a woman.” He added, “Mr. Obama swore to support and defend the Constitution, and yet, Mr. Obama refuses to defend” the Defense of Marriage Act, which is headed for review by the US Supreme Court.
Brian Camenker, head of MassResistance, a nonprofit family advocacy group in Waltham, noted that 31 states have passed laws banning gay marriage. He said the inauguration speech “just shows how extreme Obama is. It [his position] is not surprising, if you look at his record in that [gay rights] field.”
Gay rights advocates hailed Obama’s support as a historic moment.
“It feels like a genuine step forward,” said Lee Thornhill, director of prevention and screening for the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts . “He’s the first president that I’ve really seen integrate key concepts of public health, social justice and inclusion of all citizens.”
Kara Suffredini, executive director of MassEquality , a statewide advocacy group for gay, lesbian, and transgender people, lauded Obama as “unquestionably the most pro-LGBTQ president in American history.”
In his second term, Obama should work to create marriage, employment, immigration, and other areas of federal law. “MassEquality is fired up, and ready to support this just agenda,” Suffredini said.