Marking the official start of his second term, President Obama on Monday included for the first-time ever explicit references to the LGBT community in a presidential inaugural speech — a powerful statement because of the symbolic nature of the widely watched speech as a reflection of the American spirit.
Following his swearing-in by Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Roberts, Obama delivered the speech, which included many nods to his progressive base, including mentions of climate change, immigration reform in addition to a reaffirmation of the president’s earlier stated support for marriage equality.
“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,” Obama said.
Obama made another reference to the LGBT community when he included a mention of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, which are seen as the start of the modern LGBT rights movement.
“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,” Obama said.
An estimated crowd of at least 500,000 filled the National Mall to hear Obama’s speech. Spectators were bundled in coats and hats as they braved the cold winter temperatures. Still, the weather was more forgiving than during Obama’s 2009 inauguration in which bitter cold chilled those in attendance to the bone.
One LGBT advocate in attendance was Brenda “Sue” Fulton, a lesbian who serves on the board of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN. The newly married graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point said she was quite moved by Obama’s LGBT inclusion in the speech.
“When he went on to talk about marriage equality for ‘our gay brothers and sisters,’ four lovely young men in front of us cheered at the top of their lungs,” Fulton said. “I admit that I teared up. We’ve come so far this past four years; I can see all those young people in military uniforms on the platform and all around, and know that not only are some of them gay, but the others know it, and support them.”
Mentions of the LGBT community were part of a larger message in which Obama chose to set the tone for his second term by recalling past challenges the nation has overcome and issuing a call to come together to face the challenges of the present day.
“But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” Obama said. “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”
No previous president has mentioned LGBT people during an inaugural address. In 2009, Obama didn’t mention the LGBT community despite promising a commitment to LGBT rights over the course of his first presidential campaign. Instead, Obama at the time made a reference to civil rights in general, saying the nation has “tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation” and “as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself.”
John Aravosis, editor of AMERICAblog, said he was “impressed” with the way Obama reaffirmed support for the LGBT community and said it could have an impact on the gay-related cases to come before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“In addition to mentioning marriage equality, an African-American president put Stonewall alongside Selma in one of the most important speeches of his presidency,” Aravosis said. “I think that’s hugely significant culturally and politically, and possibly legally as well – the Supreme Court was sitting right there, and they look to the culture and politics when considering decisions on major social issues, like the upcoming marriage cases. This didn’t hurt.”
But LGBT-inclusiveness at the celebration wasn’t just limited to mentions in the widely anticipated speech. Those who attended on the inaugural platform as Obama was sworn into office and delivered his speech included high-profile members of the LGBT community such as Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin and Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop consecrated in the Episcopal Church.
“Today, the POTUS moved beyond merely mentioning the existence of our community, to express his commitment to our full citizenship and respect for our love,” Robinson said. “There is no way to overstate the importance of his words and witness to our lives and our love. No, we haven’t ‘arrived,’ but we sure have come a long way down this road! Amazing!”
Other speakers at the event made were gay-affirming in one way or another. The pastor who delivered the closing benediction for the service, Rev. Luis Leon, an Episcopal priest with the D.C.-based St. John’s Church, called for a blessing on all people — including whether they be “gay or straight” — in his closing remarks.
“With the blessing of your blessing we will see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black or white, male or female, first generation or immigrant American, or daughter of the American Revolution, gay or straight, rich or poor,” said León.
Leon, who also delivered the benediction at former President George W. Bush’s inaugural in 2005, was a replacement for Pastor Louie Giglio of the Georgia-based Passion City Church, who withdrew from the role after the blog ThinkProgress revealed that he delivered a virulently anti-gay sermon in the 1990s. In contrast, Leon was one of the religious figures who helped in the 2009 push to legalize same-sex marriage in D.C.
Gay inclusion during the festivities also came in the form of the openly gay inaugural poet — the nationally acclaimed Richard Blanco — who recited a poem titled, “One Today,” which highlights unity despite differences among individuals in America.
“All of us as vital as the one light we move through, the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day: equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined, the ‘I have a dream’ we keep dreaming, or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever,” Blanco read.
In a statement, HRC’s Griffin commended Obama for the LGBT-inclusion in his speech and emphasized the importance of sending such a message in an inaugural address. HRC didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up request for comment on whether the organization helped Obama with the LGBT portions of the speech.
“By lifting up the lives of LGBT families for the very first time in an inaugural address, President Obama sent a clear message to LGBT young people from the Gulf Coast to the Rocky Mountains that this country’s leaders will fight for them until equality is the law of the land,” Griffin said. “As the merits of marriage equality come up for debate from state houses to the halls of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a broad majority of Americans are standing up for liberty and fairness, the President’s unequivocal support for equality is a clarion call that all Americans should receive with celebration.”