Words, bold and beautiful
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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 theatres 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 Reverend 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 LGBT 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.