We’re looking at the Big Picture of the LGBT Rights struggle as it rightfully takes its place in American History. We saw this play out in historic fashion in President Barack Obama’s second inauguration speech, where he included the Stonewall riots in a list of defining American civil rights moments with Seneca Falls and Selma. In doing so, he took the story of the LGBT community's fight for equality and folded it completely into the fabric of what America really means.
Presidential inauguration days are often filled with pomp, circumstance, cheering crowds, and moments to remember, but rarely do they so perfectly illustrate a dramatic shift in our country’s understanding and acceptance of cultural changes. The second inauguration of President Barack Obama did just that. While many news outlets are rightly praising the historic first-ever inclusion of the word “gay” in an inauguration speech by a President, the larger and fuller inclusion of LGBT people and their struggle for equality is perhaps the bigger, and less discussed, historic moment.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” Obama said on Monday before cheering crowds, “for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” This was said not only before the entire nation, but mere feet away from the Supreme Court justices who are deciding two historic cases for marriage equality this term.
But beyond the meaningful, and not to be downplayed, name check of gay equality, was a more far-reaching inclusion of the struggle for LGBT equality in the civil rights history of the United States itself.
“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.” With this thundering line, President Obama gave equal recognition to our shared civil rights struggles, from women’s suffrage to African-American civil rights to LGBT equality.
This inclusion goes beyond simple words. For President Obama to so completely embrace the LGBT rights struggle as part of our common experience turned the page on the idea of “gay rights as special rights” that so many opponents of equality use to one of a shared American quest for civil rights and justice under the law.
But with this greater inclusion of LGBT equality into the story of civil rights in America comes a greater responsibility for our movement. It becomes clear when you look at the importance of the events included in the inauguration speech. The Seneca Falls Convention was the the definitive gathering of women’s rights activists in 1848., where women gathered to not only demand the right to vote, but also have greater control over their lives in property ownership, employment, and marital status. The march in Selma, Alabama in 1965 was a crystalizing moment for the African-American civil rights struggle, where peaceful protesters led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr were attacked by state and local police with billy clubs and tear gas, leading to what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. In the same vein, the Stonewall Riots of 1969 saw a group of LGBT patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City finally become fed up by the constant police raids and imprisonment and rose up in protest.
When our President invoked images of Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall, it was to remind us that we must form alliances that are forged in common struggles. In many cases, those of us seeking equality under the law are fighting common oppressors. By building bridges with other communities, instead of barriers, we make the march easier for all of us.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, said that he was “cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.” Dr. King’s letter is a clear call for everyone to join in the fight for civil rights, no matter how the injustices emerge or who they impact. In, perhaps, his most famous line from that letter, King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This is a lesson members of all oppressed communities – and anyone committed to social justice -- should remember. Rather than redeploying oppressive strategies against each other, people from disenfranchised communities must finally learn to focus on commonalities. The struggle for civil rights is expansive and universal. The work to be done is exhaustive.
Civil rights includes equal pay for women in the workplace, reforms in the criminal justice system, equal access to education and healthcare, equality for our transgender brothers and sisters, and so much more. As a movement, we must continue our fight, but also look beyond issues like marriage equality to our larger role in the greater American social justice movement.
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