President Barack Obama raised eyebrows when he became the first president to refer to gays in his inaugural address. Now, gay-rights activists are hoping he backs up his words with concrete action in his second term.
In his speech, heard by hundreds of thousands gathered Monday on the National Mall and millions more watching on television or online, Obama laid out a progressive vision for his next four years as commander in chief.
He referred to the 1969 Stonewall riots against police harassment by patrons of a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village as a civil rights watershed moment and added:
"It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. 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."
It was the first time that a U.S. president has used the word "gay" in regard to sexual orientation in an inauguration speech, according to Politico, which checked all prior inaugural addresses.
"I think it’s significant when in an 18-minute speech, the president goes out of his way to emphasize gay equality, even more, linking it with the civil rights and women’s rights movement by linking, alliteratively, Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall," said Michael J. Klarman, a Harvard law professor and author of "From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage."
"I suppose the country will have come even further when there is a gay president talking about gay equality, but for now, a black president talking about gay equality isn’t bad. And if you asked someone 50 years ago, what were the chances of that every happening — a black president embracing marriage equality for gays — they would have thought you a lunatic."
"It was an amazing moment for everybody in this country but especially for those of us who are LGBT," said Lee Swislow, executive director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.
It wasn't just his speech that was inclusive. The gay-rights organization GLAAD noted that poet Richard Blanco was the first openly gay man to deliver the inaugural poem and that the Rev. Luis Leon, whose ministry welcomes gays, was chosen by the White House to give the closing prayer after a pastor perceived by some as anti-gay bowed out. Leon included a reference in his benediction to "gay or straight" Americans as created in God’s image.
Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest advocacy group for gay and lesbian rights, said it's now banking on Obama to continue his support for equality though legislative and administrative action in the next four years.
Specifically, HRC wants the Obama administration in its second term to file a brief in support of marriage equality in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, which prohibits gays and lesbians from marrying.
"That’s a legacy issue that would distinguish this president forever as a president who truly is committed to civil rights of all Americans," said Fred Sainz, HRC vice president of communications and marketing.
Justices will hear arguments in that case on March 26.
The Supreme Court will also hear arguments on March 27 in a separate case challenging to the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that denies federal recognition of gay marriages. The Obama administration said in February 2011 that it will no longer defend DOMA — an announcement widely praised by pro-equality groups.
"There are limits as to what he can do but there are other issues besides marriage and relationship recognition important to LGBT that he can act, and that we hope he will act on," Swislow said.
Among other priorities, gay-rights organizations also want Obama to issue an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating by sexual orientation and gender identity, and to extend benefits to same-sex military spouses.
On the legislative front, HRC wants Congress to end "unfair" taxation of domestic partner health insurance benefits.
Many gay-rights groups gave the president high marks for his first term, in which the administration repealed the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, publicly backed same-sex marriage and stopped defending DOMA.
"Up until four years ago we were largely in wilderness. There was zero recognition by our government that the LGBT community even existed," Sainz said. "This administration came into place with a commitment not to treat us differently but to treat us equally with other Americans. With that came an enormous catchup to put the civil rights of LGBT Americans on the map."
Sainz said he has every reason to expect that the push for equality will continue in Obama's second term.
"He's always set the bar high. The inclusion of things in his speech was a clarion call for all Americans and not just himself," Sainz said. "I think he raised the bar for everyone, not just himself."
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