By the time President Obama made his acceptance speech for a second term in office, it was well past midnight on the East Coast. Like so many other Americans, I was exhausted after a long, emotional day of hoping and worrying and wanted very much to crawl into bed but I couldn't. I had to hear what the president had to say.
My radio (I don't own a television) was blasting in my office so that I could hear the news as I walked about the house and when the President started talking I stopped in my tracks and sat down on the stairs. There I heard him exclaim: "It doesn't matter whether you're black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you're willing to try." Tears rolled down my cheeks.
Here, honestly and truly, was a man who embraced the differences of our country, and as a gay woman I heard him say, I'm including you in this victory speech. To feel acknowledged and part of the moment was, like in 2008, overwhelming. Yet this time around it felt much more significant.
Four years ago, the same night Americans voted for unprecedented change and elected our first black president, California voters passed Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage in that state and reversing a court order that had granted them the freedom to marry. Election night 2008 felt like victory and defeat all at the same time. What was so crushing about the passage of Prop 8 was that it rescinded a civil right that had been acknowledged as fundamental. Gay couples and their families had been recognized as equal only to be marginalized by a popular vote. In other words, the majority had rejected the rights of a minority. Whether you lived in California or not, if you were gay, that rejection felt personal.
While devastating, though, the passage of Prop 8 fueled a renewed demand for justice and inspired one of the most extraordinary legal teams to date. Ted Olson, the lawyer for George W. Bush in the 2000 election, and David Boies, the lawyer for Al Gore, put aside their vast political differences and took up the case against Prop 8. (It is now at the Supreme Court level.) As Olson, explained, defending his decision to involve himself in the case: "The Constitution trumps everything. The Constitution provides that equal protection of the laws shall be guaranteed to all citizens."
This is the heart of the matter, and this is what was so dangerously on the line in the 2012 election. Mitt Romney supported amending the constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman, language that would have denied equal protection to same-sex couples and their families forever.
As I sat on the stairs listening to President Obama talk, I was profoundly grateful that he had been reelected and that the fight for equality could continue from this very point on. That made other victories on Tuesday even more poignant, such as same-sex marriage being legalized in three more states: Maine, Maryland and Washington. None of these victories could be threatened by a Republican presidency. All would stand as real progress, advancing the cause for equal rights.
There is still much to be done. Same-sex marriage remains illegal in most of the union, for example, with the battles against Prop 8 and DOMA still to be won. In this environment, having a president who advocates gay rights, as Obama has done, provides a foundation of moral and political support that cannot be underestimated. We need the law to do the right thing and make civil rights for the LGBT community both unquestionable and unchallengeable but we also need a leader while in the trenches. It is inspiring.
If President Obama hadn't been reelected on Tuesday I shiver to think what the world would feel like today. It would have mattered terribly that I was gay, for all the wrong reasons. I wouldn't have been part of any victory speech, for instance, and people like me would no longer have been mentioned on the national stage with ease and respect. That's a chilling thought, and one to remember if only to appreciate the election results even more. As I sat on my stairs listening to President Obama, unwilling to move lest I miss a single word, I felt waves of relief and joy. My civil rights mean everything to me. And they mean something to my president, too.