Attending the non-military of the two official Presidential Inaugural Balls at the massive Washington Convention Center Monday night, along with about 25,000 others I suspect, being with my male companion and observing many other tuxedo-and-gown attired same-sex couples holding each other, hugging and having a fabulous time, I was particularly struck by this aspect of the truly historical nature of the day.
It was one thing to be invited to the White House last June for a special reception in honor of Pride Week. As special as that occasion was, including seeing the number of same-sex couples in uniform, it was an all-lesbian and gay reception (except for the president, who spoke) and gays among gays is not an uncommon experience.
This Monday, however, it was different. It was a very mixed crowd, with lesbians and gay composing about the same percentage of the total as probably exists in society in general, about five to seven percent.
So, by historical standards, the gays demonstrating their orientation there were vulnerable. We could easily have been pounced upon and beaten to pulps. After all, such things still happen too often in our society, and an inaugural ball for the wrong president could have seen it happen, too.
But this was to honor President Obama, and no one, in such a short period of time, has done more to advance the cause of the full legal, social and moral enfranchisement of gay and lesbian American citizens than this African-American man.
At the ball, I thought how privileged I was to be living in a time span from when it was categorically impossible (short of inviting arrest, violence, shame, or loss of job and family ties) to reveal one’s orientation in a crowd like this, be it a high school prom or office party. From then to now, how things have changed, and Obama’s initiatives of just the last year have put it over the top.
By his willingness to “go all the way” last year to fully embrace, for the first time, unqualified support for gay marriage caused a paradigm shift in the entire U.S. population on that previously-divisive subject. In particular, the outdated prejudices of many within the African-American community itself began to shift dramatically.
Obama couched it in the context of the struggle for the full equality and enfranchisement of everybody, and who believing in such concepts generally, could be against that when applied to lesbians and gays, especially when all they are hoping to do is to marry those they love?
Our president did not hesitate to include lesbians and gays in his epochal Second Inaugural Address earlier that same day, as well, evoking the key civil rights signposts of “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall,” affirming by the inclusion of “Stonewall” the aspirations of lesbian and gay people to their full enfranchisement in our culture, which he then proceeded to affirm more explicitly.
It is already a given, even by those right wingers who predictably hated it, that Obama’s Second Inaugural Address will go down in history as one of the most memorable and important.
While the entire speech was like a Promethean Beethoven symphony, there were certain inflection points that broke the conventions of modern history beyond the commitments to gay and lesbian rights, to women’s rights, to protect the vulnerable and to buoy a rising middle class.
Among them, he said, “We the people still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war…We are heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.”
It was the theme of “togetherness” (“Now more than ever we must do these things together, as one nation and one people”) that defined the speech, contrasting the degrading notion of “a nation of takers” with the opportunities and obligations of fully realized citizenship.
Obama challenged us all to be “citizens,” above all, not special interests, not rich against poor, not consumers or takers, but “citizens” together sharing the hopes and responsibilities for all, and for the future.