I’m pretty cynical when it comes to politics and I tend to remain unmoved by flowery speeches declaring grand principles, knowing that such declarations rarely result in genuine change. But these passages from President Obama’s second inaugural address seem to me to be a symbol of how far we have come on LGBT equality:
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; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth…
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.
This is the first time the word “gay” has ever appeared in an inaugural address, the first time, in fact, that the subject itself has ever been mentioned. I think that’s a very encouraging development and it signals just how far we’ve come. And I find echoes of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in the allusion to the ever-expanding application of founding principles. This is the clear pattern of American history, as we slowly — far too slowly, of course — extend those promises to those who were left out.
Obama’s soaring rhetoric is matched by Jefferson’s. When Jefferson wrote of the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we are struck both by the eloquence of that statement and by the very limited nature of its application. It might well have come with a disclaimer at the end: “For a limited time only, void where prohibited, women and blacks and Native Americans need not apply.” The key narrative of the two subsequent centuries has been the extending of those promises to people who were initially denied those rights that were allegedly unalienable.
Every generation has had a battle for civil rights — for human rights — to fight. Slavery was ended, women were finally given the right to vote, the Jim Crow laws and segregation were painfully put down, discrimination on the basis of race, gender and religion was forbidden. At each step, more and more people fell under the protection of those grand promises made so long ago. And we are now in the middle of another great leap forward as we fight for equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. And we are well on our way to winning that battle, with the same historical pattern playing out.
But even as this country has become more fair and just in many important ways, there is much still to be done, and not just on gay rights. Our criminal justice system is corrupt and brutal and unjust in almost every way, destroying lives and families — almost all of them black or Latino — by the hundreds of thousands. One of our two major parties is intent on suppressing poor and minority votes, killing the hard-fought victories for voting rights by a thousand tiny cuts. Public policy is largely controlled by the richest Americans, who distort the legislative and administrative process to ensure their financial gain at the expense of the environment and workers.
And it’s going to take a lot more than lofty rhetoric to fix those things.