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Obama, the Inaugural Address, Gay Rights & Other Social Justice Issues

There is a lot of news that is worth your attention this week: a significant new report with implications about California’s probationers and parolees.
..some action on LA County probation’s use of solitary confinement for kids…additional LASD news….and more. But we’ll get to those issues tomorrow, and in coming days.

Today we are pausing to focus on Monday’s inauguration as it relates to a couple of the social justice topics that we discuss here at WitnessLA.

With that in mind, here are some stories, essays, and op eds that attempt to decode the import of the president’s speech, specifically, and the inauguration, in general:

(Here’s the text of Obama’s inaugural address, in case you need it for reference.)


Well, Richard Socarides of the New Yorker thinks so, and makes his case.

Here’s a clip from his essay:

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….


NY Times columnist, Frank Bruni, comments on the difference between Obama’s first inauguration and Monday’s when it comes to gay rights. Here’s a clip:

Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall. The alliteration of that litany made it seem obvious and inevitable, a bit of poetry just there for the taking. Just waiting to happen.

But it has waited a long time. And President Obama’s use of it in his speech on Monday — his grouping of those three places and moments in one grand and musical sentence — was bold and beautiful and something to hear. It spoke volumes about the progress that gay Americans have made over the four years between his first inauguration and this one, his second. It also spoke volumes about the progress that continues to elude us.

“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,” the president said, taking a rapt country on a riveting trip to key theaters in the struggle for liberty and justice for all.

Seneca Falls is a New York town where, in 1848, the women’s suffrage movement gathered momentum. Selma is an Alabama city where, in 1965, marchers amassed, blood was shed and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood his ground against the unconscionable oppression of black Americans.

And Stonewall? This was the surprise inclusion, separating Obama’s oratory and presidency from his predecessors’ diction and deeds. It alludes to a gay bar in Manhattan that, in 1969, was raided by police, who subjected patrons to a bullying they knew too well. After the raid came riots, and after the riots came a more determined quest by L.G.B.T. Americans for the dignity they had long been denied.

The causes of gay Americans and black Americans haven’t always existed in perfect harmony, and that context is critical for appreciating Obama’s reference to Stonewall alongside Selma. Blacks have sometimes questioned gays’ use of “civil rights” to describe their own movement, and have noted that the historical experiences of the two groups aren’t at all identical. Obama moved beyond that, focusing on the shared aspirations of all minorities. It was a big-hearted, deliberate, compelling decision.

He went on, seconds later, to explicitly mention “gay” Americans, saying a word never before uttered in inaugural remarks. What shocked me most about that was how un-shocking it was.


In this LA Times Op Ed, Ken Dilanian and David G. Savage of the paper’s Washington Bureau, discuss the possible policy shifts the speech suggests—particularly when it comes to the stand the administration may or may not take with regard to the gay rights matters coming soon before the Supreme Court. Here’s a clip from their story:

“….Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” he continued, “for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

The passage “was definitely one of those moments that took your breath away,” said Adam DeRosa, president of the Lesbian and Gay Band Assn., whose 215 members later marched past the president in the inaugural parade. “We understand the historical significance of it. What political significance it has remains to be seen.”

Obama, who only last spring hesitated to declare his public support for gay marriage, soon will have to decide whether his administration will take the potentially huge step of arguing before the Supreme Court that gay marriage is an equal right under the Constitution.

The court will soon review two cases, one of them involving California’s Proposition 8, the ballot measure that limited marriage to unions between a man and a woman. Gay rights lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to declare the ballot measure unconstitutional, potentially striking down the laws of 41 states.

To several legal scholars, Obama’s equating of Selma and Stonewall strongly implied he is prepared to side with gay rights activists. But doing so would mark a sudden departure from the caution with which he has typically approached most issues….


Theodore Olson, the former George W. Bush administration solicitor general and lawyer for the gay couples challenging Proposition 8, said the president sounded ready to back a constitutional right to gay marriage.

“I was very gratified to hear the president state in clear and unambiguous language that our gay and lesbian citizens must be treated equally under the law,” Olson said, “and that their loving relationships must be treated equally as well. That can only mean one thing: equality under the Constitution.”

Evan Wolfson, president and founder of New York-based Freedom to Marry, noted in an interview that Obama’s speech “was an inaugural address, not a legal brief, and we will see over the next several weeks exactly what positions the Justice Department takes.”

“I am confident the president knows that the Constitution requires equality in the freedom to marry,” he added…


“We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.”

Doug Berman over at Sentencing, Law and Policy wants to know if Obama’s clemency record will match his inaugural rhetoric.

Here’s a clip:

Blogging four years ago during the last day in which a US President took the oath of office, I commented in this post about the tendency of chief executives to invoke great rhetoric and wax poetic about freedom and liberty in America despite our country’s recent record of locking up a record number of persons in jails and prisons. I also asked in this follow-up post on the same day whether it was too early to start demanding President Obama use his clemency power to live up to our country’s traditional commitment to personal freedom and liberty.

Sadly, as P.S. Ruckman effectively documents and highlights in this new post, President Obama’s first-term record on the clemency front is at once disgraceful and disgusting:

Barack Obama’s first term has come to an end and we are now ready to report that his four-years as president represent the least merciful term for any modern president (Democrat or Republican) and, quite possibly, the least merciful in the entire history of the United States (see footnote below).

This is, of course, an incredible distinction for a president who repeatedly notes that America is a place where people get “second chances,” from a president who complained bitterly about overly-harsh sentences given to criminal defendants simply because they were African-American, and from a president who promised us “hope and change.”


The Atlantic’s James Fallows points out that, in addition to the significance of the paragraphs in the president’s speech on gay rights, gender equality, et al, the other significant section is the one that comes earlier in the speech, and contains this:

“For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.”

In other words, for whatever it is worth, POTUS intends the speech as more than rhetorical; it is a specific call to action.

Fallows says he has ” no illusion, delusion, allusion, or even dog-whistle conceptions that this speech will change the partisan power-balance affecting passage of anything Obama mentioned, from climate legislation to reforming immigration law.”

And yet, Fallows’ colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests in his reflections on the speech:

Obama’s speech is different. To some extent it exposes people to new ideas. But to a greater extent, perhaps, it shows how movements which only a few years ago were thought to be on the run have, in at least one major party, carried the day. This is not a small thing.

For details, one presumes we should stay tuned for the State of the Union address in February.

AND NOW….back to our regularly scheduled programming

PS: While Beyonce and the others were wonderful to see and hear at the inauguration, for me it was that lovely, unnamed soprano who—along with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir surrounding her—truly blew the doors off the joint.

1 Comment

  • During the Bush era I thought repeatedly how great it would be to have a presidency that had the moral compass as displayed in The West Wing. Obama isn’t quite there yet, but he’s a hell of a lot closer that was the previous admin.

    Oh, and thanks to the seemingly omniscient Nate Silver, I had known for months that the person taking center stage last night was not an empty suit.

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