No one anticipated it, but President Barack Obama used the occasion of his second Inaugural Address to give what was perhaps the most important gay-rights speech in American history. Inaugural Addresses are, by their definition, important and defining occasions, when Presidents set the tone and direction for the coming four years. President Obama used the occasion to make the first direct reference to gay-rights in an Inaugural Address, and he did so with a power and forthrightness we have not heard before, even from him.
About two-thirds of the way into the speech, Obama referred to Stonewall, a gay bar where, in 1969, a police raid provoked a riot, in the same sentence as Seneca Falls and Selma—thus comparing the women’s and African-American civil-rights movements to the gay-rights struggle. Had he stopped there, it would have been historic—particularly coming from the first African-American President—but, in keeping with the tradition of politicians who refer to gay-rights obliquely or with code words, stopping short of directness.
But the President continued:
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.
Not only was this a call to end discrimination, but an unambiguous argument for the recognition of same-sex marriage across the country. For a President who announced his support for marriage equality less than a year ago, after more reluctance (and suggestions about what could be left to the states) than many would have liked, this was a bold declaration from perhaps the boldest platform of all.
The Supreme Court will hear in March a number of cases dealing with same-sex marriage. The Justice Department is asking the Court to declare the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages valid under state law, as unconstitutional under the equal-protection clause.
In addition, opponents of California’s Proposition 8 are asking the Court to declare a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage. That could conceivably spell the end of anti-gay-marriage state-constitutional amendments across the country. We are awaiting word as to whether the Justice Department will enter that case on behalf of gay-rights advocates. It is now almost hard to see a scenario in which it will not. But whatever happens, the President’s words today about the equality of love will be ringing in the ears of Chief Justice John Roberts, who administered the inaugural oath, and the other justices who watched Obama speak in front of the Capitol.
A lot has been written about how quickly public opinion has shifted in favor of gay-rights. President Obama’s second Inaugural was evidence of that, but more strikingly it was evidence of a newfound willingness to lead the country more dramatically into the future on gay equality.