NEW YORK — President Barack Obama reaffirmed his support of LGBT rights during Barnard College’s commencement address on Monday.
“No matter who you love or what God you love, you can still pursue your own happiness,” he told the nearly 600 graduates who gathered on Columbia University’s South Lawn after referencing the 1969 Stonewall riots. “I will be with you every step of the way.”
Obama joined Freedom to Marry President Evan Wolfson on stage less than a week after he announced his support for marriage equality during a White House interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts. Barnard also honored Care USA President Helene D. Gayle and chemistry professor Sally Chapman during the ceremony.
Retired New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith Kaye described Wolfson as a “hero for the charge of marriage equality” and a “champion for the cause of civil rights for all” before she presented Wolfson with Barnard’s Medal of Distinction.
“You have turned a once lonely march into a surging national movement,” she said to sustained applause. She further noted that the number of Americans who live in jurisdictions that allow nuptials for gays and lesbians more than doubled last June after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the state’s marriage equality bill into law. “The momentum in the direction of your dream Evan is positively undeniable. Today we hail your extraordinary influence and limitless commitment to every loving man and woman.”
Wolfson referenced the president’s own words after the speech.
“It was a proud moment to share the stage with the president of the United States as he traced the arc of America’s civil rights history from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, encouraging the next generation to get engaged in the great work at hand of building a more perfect union and making a difference in the lives of others,” Wolfson told the Blade. “To stand before the women graduates and receive the Barnard Medal of Distinction alongside the president, presented by the great Judge Judith Kaye, in a week that the president embraced the freedom to marry, was the honor of a lifetime.”
Obama, whose sister Maya Soetoro-Ng graduated from Barnard, delivered the college’s commencement address before he taped an appearance on “The View” that will air on Tuesday. The president attended two re-election campaign fundraisers—including one that gay singer Ricky Martin hosted in Chelsea—before returning to Washington, D.C.
In a related development, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney reaffirmed his opposition to marriage for same-sex couples during a speech to Liberty University graduates on Saturday.
A USA Today/Gallup poll released late on Friday indicated that Obama’s support of marriage for gays and lesbians will not influence how the majority of Americans vote in November. Sixty-five percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Republicans who responded to the survey said the president’s position does not make them more or less likely to vote for him. The poll further noted that 74 percent of Republicans oppose Obama’s endorsement of nuptials for gays and lesbians, compared to only 25 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of independents.
Gay New York State Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan), who attended the Barnard speech, told the Blade after the commencement that the address “is another articulation by this administration that they view me and people like me as full Americans.” New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand agreed.
“President Obama couldn’t have said it better when he encouraged the students to fight for their seat at the head of the table,” she told the Blade in a statement. “When we have women at decision making tables in politics and business the outcomes are simply better.”