Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall. The alliteration of that litany made it seem obvious and inevitable, a bit of poetry just there for the taking. Just waiting to happen.
But it has waited a long time. And President Barack Obama’s use of it in his speech on Monday — his grouping of those three places and moments in one grand and musical sentence — was bold and beautiful and something to hear. It spoke volumes about the progress gay Americans have made over the four years between his first inauguration and this one, his second. It also spoke volumes about the progress that continues to elude us.
“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,” the president said, taking a rapt country on a riveting trip to key theaters in the struggle for liberty and justice for all.
Seneca Falls is a New York town where, in 1848, the women’s suffrage movement gathered momentum. Selma is an Alabama city where, in 1965, marchers amassed, blood was shed and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood his ground against the unconscionable oppression of black Americans.
And Stonewall? This was the surprise inclusion, separating Obama’s oratory and presidency from his predecessors’ diction and deeds. It alludes to a gay bar in New York that, in 1969, was raided by police, who subjected patrons to a bullying they knew too well. After the raid came riots, and after the riots came a more determined quest by LGBT Americans for the dignity they had long been denied.
The causes of gay Americans and black Americans haven’t always existed in perfect harmony, and that context is critical for appreciating Obama’s reference to Stonewall alongside Selma. Blacks have sometimes questioned gays’ use of “civil rights” to describe their own movement and have noted that the historical experiences of the two groups aren’t at all identical. Obama moved beyond that, focusing on the shared aspirations of all minorities. It was a big-hearted, deliberate, compelling decision.
He went on, seconds later, to explicitly mention “gay” Americans, saying a word never before uttered in inaugural remarks. What shocked me most about that was how un-shocking it was.
Four years ago we lived in a country in which citizens of various states had consistently voted against the legalization of same-sex marriage.
But on Nov. 6, the citizens of all three states that had the opportunity to legalize gay marriage at the ballot box did so, with clear majorities in Maryland, Maine and Washington endorsing it.
Four years ago the inaugural benediction was given by a pastor with a record of anti-gay positions and remarks. This year that same assignment was withdrawn from a pastor with a similar record, once it came to light. What’s more, an openly gay man was chosen to be the inaugural poet, and in news coverage of his biography, his parents’ exile from Cuba drew more attention than his sexual orientation. That’s how far we’ve come.
And the distance traveled impresses me more than the distance left. I want to be clear on that. I’m proud of our country and president, despite their shortcomings on this front and others. It takes time for minds to open fully and laws to follow suit, and the making of change, in contrast to the making of statements, depends on patience as well as passion.
But the “gay” passage of Obama’s speech underscored the lingering gap between the American ideal and the American reality. “Our journey is not complete,” he said, “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.”
He means the right to marry. As long as we gay and lesbian Americans don’t have that, we’re being told that our relationships aren’t as honorable as those of straight couples. And if that’s the case, then we’re not as honorable, either. Is there really any other reading of the situation?
Despite our strides, gay and lesbian couples even now can marry only in nine states and the District of Columbia. The federal government doesn’t recognize those weddings, meaning that in terms of taxes, military benefits and matters of immigration, it treats gays and lesbians differently than it treats other Americans. It relegates us to an inferior class.
The Supreme Court could soon change, or validate, that. There are relevant cases before it. For his part Obama could show less deference to states’ rights, be more insistent about what’s just and necessary coast-to-coast, and push for federal protections against employment discrimination when it comes to LGBT Americans. His actions over the next four years could fall wholly in line with Monday’s trailblazing words. My hope is real, and grateful, and patient.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.