Political speeches are known as much for the lofty moral certainties behind every promise of change as they are for the seemingly inevitable failure of those promises. But if there is one takeaway from President Obama’s speech at his inaugural ceremony on Monday, it is perhaps this: His administration is finished hedging on the fight for gay rights.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” Obama said.
He appeared to mean it.
Days before the inauguration, news surfaced that pastor Louie Giglio, who had been scheduled to give a prayer at the January 21 event, had made homophobic remarks during a 2011 sermon—where he argued that gay activists in America attempted “to seize by any means necessary the feeling and the mood of the day, to the point where the homosexual lifestyle becomes accepted as a norm in our society.”
Giglio was canned from Obama’s inauguration event.
Even more symbolic was the fact that openly gay poet Richard Blanco was tasked with writing and performing the inaugural poem.
What a difference four years can make.
After all, it was notoriously anti-gay pastor Rick Warren who gave a sermon at Obama’s 2009 inaugural ceremonies—shortly after likening homosexuality to incest and pedophilia. Warren’s inclusion in the festivities was considered an olive branch to the Red states across America, but it was experienced as a slap in the face to the LGBT community, which had placed its hope (and financial support) behind Obama.
That 2008 Obama would sacrifice a pro-gay rights position for political expediency shouldn’t have surprised anyone in the LGBT community. Despite repeatedly endorsing marriage equality during his tenure in Illinois state politics, Obama suddenly reversed his stance on the topic when his political fortunes hit the national stage. In the run-up to his 2008 election, Obama told a live audience at MTV: “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.”
Obama’s first year in office saw quite a bit of controversy on LGBT rights. After the administration failed to extend health benefits to the gay and lesbian partners of federal employees, LGBT activist Cleve Jones took his frustration out with the Obama administration in a 2009 interview with Democracy Now.
[We] voted in enormous numbers for Obama. We want very much to believe that he has our best interest, as well as the entire country’s, in his heart. But he seems to be continuing this really hurtful policy of doling out increments of rights, fractions of equality. And I think our movement is really beyond that at this point.
It took years, but in February 2011 Obama—once again—came out in favor of gay marriage (albeit reluctantly), and in September of that year he came around to repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
The LGBT community responded by putting serious money behind Obama’s reelection campaign. At a time when the president’s finances were suffering, Obama’s campaign saw an infusion of more than $1 million in donations in a span of 90 minutes after he announced a less-equivocal support for same-sex marriage on May 10, 2011.
In May, Obama noted that marriage equality was something to be determined on a state-by-stage basis.
Within months, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on two cases that may shape the immediate future of marriage equality legislation. So now, as Obama’s speech signified, is as good a time as there has ever been for the president to make things happen.
Gay rights activists and the LGBT community are loath to settle for anything short of a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA prohibits the federal government from acknowledging the lawfulness of gay unions—even in states where gay marriage is legal.
The act has profound consequences for gay and lesbian couples, most notably preventing them from filing jointly on their tax returns and, often, receiving equal health insurance coverage protections as their heterosexual counterparts—what essentially equates to a massive financial punishment for being gay.
Within the next few months, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on two cases that may be game changers for the marriage equality movement. The first case, Windsor v. United States, concerns the IRS taxing the estate of a surviving same-sex spouse as if the couple had been mere acquaintances. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Windsor, DOMA is likely to fall.
The second case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, raised out of California’s Proposition 8 same-sex marriage ban, will address whether or not LGBT people can claim a constitutional right to marry.
Depending on how the Supremes rule on these cases, Obama’s inauguration day promises will either be relative gimmes, or will require that he commit more political will than he has shown in the past to the process.
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