The word “gay” came out of the closet during President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech Monday. In a wide-ranging speech about equality, Obama mentioned “gay brothers and sisters,” making him the first president to use the term in an inauguration address.
Obama’s mention is the latest step forward in a year that is poised to make history in the marriage-equality movement. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon take up arguments about two cases involving same-sex marriage: one about California’s Proposition 8 and the other about the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Both have the chance to set in motion sweeping changes across the nation, with the best possible outcome being legalized marriage for same-sex couples.
No matter what the court decides, and whether its ruling affects just a few states or the whole nation, Obama’s comment marks a shift away from whether there should be same-sex marriages to how America can secure those rights for all gay couples. The president has now advanced the cause of gay rights further than any other president, including his announcement in May that he believes in the right for same-sex couples to wed.
Obama’s comment about same-sex marriage was not the only portion of his speech dedicated to equality. He also mentioned equality for women and immigrants as well. And his speech also included political hot potatoes such as fighting global warming and tackling comprehensive gun-control measures. Judging by the scope of his comments in the inaugural address, Obama has a full agenda for his second term.
The next step needed for progress on same-sex marriage equality is action, but the onus for moving the issue forward need not fall entirely on Obama. Federal lawmakers should draft a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act in case a Supreme Court ruling does not roll back the law nationwide. Grass-roots groups should be considering a nationwide fight for rights rather than just focusing on areas where they have better chances of
Obama himself acknowledged that today’s victories are unlikely to end the need for progress in these areas.
“We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said. “We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and 40 years, and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”
Gay Americans have long fought the government to win the basic freedoms they should be able to take for granted. Now one of the three branches of the federal government is firmly supportive of gay and lesbian rights, and a large population of elected legislators is ready to move on the issues. The backing of the Supreme Court is ultimately essential, but with many in government signaling that it is time to rework those laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, Congress should get started before the court ever rules.
Just Obama’s words may have a euphoric effect, but his speech should be interpreted as a call to action. Now the work must begin to transform his thoughts into reality.