Michael A. Tew
Quoted by the Associated Press one week ago, Martin J. Medhurst, a professor of politics and rhetoric at Baylor University suggests, “Most inaugural addresses are just pedestrian, lacking emotion and urgency.” As for second inaugurals, “Reality has set in,” he says. “You don’t have these grand visions for change you had when you were first coming into office.” (Cass, Associated Press, January 16, 2013)
Yet President Obama, drew on the themes of fairness, justice, and inclusion, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration of his re-election. The speech did advance grand visions. The speech captured the urgency of our times. The speech captured the motivational and emotional tone needed to inspire collective action and grass roots movement.
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
Historic in its inclusiveness and its acknowledgement of sexual identity communities, President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address advances a moral vision for equality; civil and human rights from the grandest of political stages. A message of inclusion at this level of politics was not expected in the lifetimes of many who experience gender and sexuality differently than the so-called mainstream of America. The President’s unprecedented acknowledgement and support offered, what Richard Socarides suggested in the New Yorker online, “perhaps the most important gay rights speech in American history.” (January 21, 2013)
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.
The statement is more than support for Marriage Equality. It is an insistence for equal treatment under the law – all of them. The call to equality seems simple enough but is actually a complex proposition. In reality, the lived experience of people in sexual orientation and gender identity communities reveals the need for a complex set of public policy and social practice changes and reforms. The pragmatics of change are far less soaring than the ideals of the message. Still, the President welcomed the equality agenda.
“The speech marked the first time a president used the term ‘gay’ as a reference to sexual orientation in an inauguration speech. Prayers and poems carried messages of inclusion as well.” (The Advocate, January 21, 2013) Inclusion was a central theme of the entire Inauguration. A simple premise. In American social and political life, however, inclusion is pragmatically complex. It means confronting the many layered challenges of meaningful public policy on LGBT health needs and access, employment discrimination, full military equality, policy regarding LGBT elders, education and safe schools, bullying and anti-LGBT violence, marriage and family issues, economic parity, and on and on. The President’s message calls for changes in political will and an acceleration of trends in public support.
Inclusion means more than attention to “our gay brothers and sisters” it means inclusion of trans identified individuals and communities – access to public services, facilities, health care, employment, and protection – often different than those of their “gay brothers and sisters (read…lesbians- whose concerns and needs as “a” community have been historically different than those of gay men, as well). Vice President Joe Biden identified transgender discrimination as “the civil rights issue of our time” (in comments to volunteers at an Obama for America office in Sarasota, Fla., last October). Trans individuals, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, face “rampant discrimination in employment, education, family issues, police and jail, public accommodations, housing, and ID documents.” The NGLTF points out, leadership from the executive branch and federal agencies will be critically important given the challenges of the current legislative environment. Inclusion is intersectional – across race, social class, gender, sexuality, and many more features of our diverse human experience. Equality is simple. Equality is hard.
That is our generation’s task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.
Equality – a simple principle and a truly moral call to action. Action, however, will require diligence, organization, and research. Research, documented and evidence based accounts of LGBT relationships and social experience, is critically important in a time of partisan grandstanding and intransigence. When media outlets elevate fringe, anti-LGBT organizations and individuals to legitimacy in order to amplify controversy (frequently on non-controversial issues), credible research from academic, agency, and advocacy sources is vital.