Obama's Second Inaugural Address: The Dream of Equality Is Getting Closer

01/24/2013 04:58 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Had Mitt Romney won the election, the gay community would have hit a stone wall. Instead, President Barack Obama's historic inauguration speech mentioned Stonewall, the New York City gay bar where patrons fought back against a police raid in 1969. That Obama did so while invoking Seneca Falls and Selma -- cities indelibly linked to the fight for human liberty -- made the speech even more significant.

The nationally televised talk in front of hundreds of thousands of onlookers at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., marked the first time that the word "gay" was included in an inauguration address:

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 ... 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's soaring speech was as bold as it was beautiful, as moving as it was magnificent. It was an address that the LGBT community had only dreamed a president would deliver. While watching, I had a Chris Matthews moment and "felt this thrill going up my leg."

This triumphant moment is the result of decades of backbreaking work. The first breakthrough came on Saturday, March 26, 1977, when Midge Costanza, a top aide to President Jimmy Carter, invited 14 gay rights advocates to the White House. The event took place in the Roosevelt Room and lasted three hours. The book Out for Good discusses the risqué meeting: "President Carter, off to Camp David, would not be there, and Midge Costanza had not told him what she was doing. She did not clear her meetings with the president, but she did list them on her schedule, which was sent to the chief of staff."

Another milestone came in May 1992, when gay political strategist David Mixner introduced his college friend and presidential candidate Bill Clinton to a group of gay rights advocates and donors. At the Palace Theater in Hollywood, the former governor of Arkansas wowed the crowd with an emotional speech that included the famous line, "What I came here today to tell you in simple terms is: I have a vision, and you are part of it." (Unfortunately, Clinton's vision blurred a bit when confronted with strident right-wing opposition, leading to the heinous "don't ask, don't tell" policy and his signing of the odious Defense of Marriage Act.)

During his reelection campaign, Obama went out on a limb (or was pushed onto it by Joe Biden) and endorsed marriage equality. Locked in a tight race, it was unclear what the ramifications might be in conservative swing states like Florida and Ohio. With the LGBT community firmly behind him, Obama handily won and proved that supporting marriage equality would not cost a candidate a national election.

Prior to his second inaugural address, it was unknown to what extent Obama would focus on LGBT equality in his second term. Only a week prior, Louie Giglio, a preacher who had once made virulently homophobic comments, was chosen to give the benediction at the inauguration. After an uproar, Giglio backed out, and a more inclusive holy man replaced him.

Obama's speech cleared up any lingering doubts about his commitment to LGBT equality. He signaled that he views this topic as more than a political issue to give lip service to in order to mollify a boisterous special interest group. What we heard was a man who strongly considers LGBT equality an important legacy issue. He seems to consider achieving liberty for LGBT Americans the type of accomplishment one burnishes at his presidential library.

Still, there is so much critical work to do. For instance, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, urged Obama to "take yet another important step toward fulfilling that promise of equality by filing an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in Hollingsworth v. Perry," one of the two gay marriage cases before the Supreme Court. Moreover, the president could increase diversity in his administration by nominating an openly gay person to his Cabinet or other high-level appointments.

We must remember that it is still legal in the majority of states for LGBT people to be fired for their sexual orientation. Only nine states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. "Reparative: therapists continue to abuse children by peddling their "ex-gay" snake oil.

Obama's second inauguration was even more special because it occurred on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The only thing more powerful than having a mighty dream is making it happen. President Obama's eloquent talk made the future seem brighter, the horizon limitless and our dreams of equality closer to reality.