From Seneca Falls, Selma, And Stonewall … Forward

Terrance Heath

Four years ago, my husband and I opted to watch Barack Obama’s inauguration from home. The very likely reality of spending most of the day outdoors, standing in the cold, with two very cold and very bored children, waiting for hours to end up not seeing very much outweighed any desire to witness history in the frostbitten flesh. Instead, we watched at home. I sat with our oldest son to make sure he saw the moment Obama took the oath of office. I wept with joy that he was able to witness what his grandfather, my father, didn’t live to see.

The second time around, we missed the oath of office but caught the president’s speech. And, again, I shed tears of joy.

Of course, what moved me to tears were the most widely reported — and arguably one of the most historic — passages of the speech.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmIA9bHQs9w
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; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.

Despite his embrace of marriage equality during the presidential campaign, this was something I didn’t expect from Barack Obama. It certain wasn’t something he had to do. It wasn’t likely to gain him any support he didn’t already have.

But as I continued listening to Obama’s speech, I realized the passage above merely telegraphed where the speech would finally end up.

Stonewall Inn 1969

I’ve been to the Stonewall Inn. I made visit there during a trip to New York, several years ago. I’d read books like Martin Duberman’s history Stonewall. I’d also watched documentaries like PBS’s The American Experience: Stonewall Uprising. They gave me a sense of what happened during those days after a routine police raid of a gay bar went awry then the patrons unexpectedly fought back.

I’d also read books like Neil Miller’s Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s, about an episode in 1954 after two horrific child murders, when police responded to public hysteria by rounding up 20 gay men who had nothing to do with the crime, labeled them as “sexual psychopaths,” and locked them in a mental institution “until cured.” I read about what came to be known in Greensboro, North Carolina, as “the purge”; a 1957 round-up of gay men in Greensboro, in which 32 gay men were arrested, indicted, tried and in most case convicted on private act with consenting adults .I read books like David K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government,  about the less-often-told story of Joe McCarthy’s campaign against “sex perverts” he claimed had infiltrated government agencies, conducting what was perhaps the first “culture war” against gays and lesbians.

I just 4 or 5 months old when the Stonewall riot happened. Thus I was utterly unaware of it and the impact it would have on my life. Yet I sit here more than 43 years later, and as I write this my “lawfully wedded” husband (and I have the marriage license to prove it) children are sleeping upstairs, in our home, in a state where the legislature passed marriage equality legislation and the voters backed equality. I also write this as an African-American descendent of slaves, and only a generation or two removed from sharecropping in the South.

In other words, I write this as an American who has benefited from progressive movements that fought to expand the definition and extend the benefits of full citizenship beyond the narrow portion of the population for whom the founding fathers originally reserved them.

Think about where we are now and how far from the birth of this country, when its promises were reserved for a narrow portion of its population. Yet, its principles provided the basis for every progressive movement that had as its goal the extension of those promises to the full spectrum of the population.

And yes, they were progressive movements. By the very nature of their work, they could hardly be otherwise.

From the abolitionists movement, to the labor movement, to the suffragists movement, to the civil rights movement, to the feminist movement, to the LGBT movement; every progressive movement that has advocated for change “as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are.”

They were and are driven by individuals lending their strength and their hearts to bending the arc of the universe towards justice, because they are comprised of people for whom the status quo is the opposite of justice and people for whom injustice — even though visited upon others, and even though it afforded them some privileges — is intolerable.

And in each case they were opposed by people for whom the status quo and its injustices were and had to be the natural order. People who were (and yes, I love to pick on this quote) standing athwart history yelling “Stop!”

They were yelling “Stop!” as every progressive movement above marched forward, pushing the envelope of change and expanding the the qualifications for full citizenship in this country and full membership in the human family. They were yelling “Stop!” as every one of those movements marched passed them towards freedom, enfranchisement, and equality.

They are still yelling. And we are passing them by, on our way to the same destinations. We may not all have reached all of them yet, but we’re closer than we were, and some of them are already in sight.

We’ll get there. And when we do, they’ll still be standing in that place called “the wrong side of history” yelling “Stop!”

When the president included the gay movement among the major progressive civil rights movements, he was merely putting it in the context in which it has always belong — in the company of ever other progressive movement (and they have only been progressive movements) that have worked to extend the promise of America to those whom the founding fathers left out. Whatever differences, real or imagined, exist between these movements, at their core they all of this in common.

It was fitting that this president would make those connections so explicitly, for his own presidency couldn’t have happened without those movements — or would have happened much later than it did. Likewise Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and turn as Secretary of State, or Nancy Pelosi’s term as the first female speaker of the House, or Eric Holder’s term as the first African-American Attorney General, or Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation as the first Latina on the Supreme Court. That list could go on and on to include even Sarah Palin’s candidacy for Vice President, or Condoleeza Rice’s term as the first African American Secretary of State, or Alberto Gonzales’ term as the first Latino Attorney General. Again, none could have happened without the progressive movements that first expanded the rights of citizenship to include women and people of color.

The president, with his words, wove our family and families like our to the American story. For the first time, as an American, I didn’t have to “read between the lines” to find where I fit into a president’s vision for America. I didn’t have to assume that the universality of certain words and phrases meant that my family and I were included. I didn’t have to assume that when the president spoke about Americans in general that me meant me too, or that when he spoke of American families that my family and I were included. The President Obama words left no doubt that we were and are part of his his vision for the country.

President Obama could have stopped there. But he went on to make even more history as he repeated his support for marriage equality.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began.  For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. 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. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.  Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.  Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

It was a few minutes before I could speak, after hearing that. But my feelings must have been etched on my face, and betrayed by my tears, because our oldest son saw the look on my face and asked me what was wrong. It took me a moment before I could tell him that nothing was wrong, but that for the first time something was right.

If anything, my tears were how much has been so wrong, for so long. Just a few days before the inauguration, a video popped up in my Facebook newsfeed. It was the story of Shane Bitney Crone and Shawn Bridegoom, and what can happen to same-sex couples without equal protection under the law.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pR9gyloyOjM

Shane and Tom’s story have spread far and wide. At this writing, it’s been viewed 3,400,613 times on YouTube, and has received so much support that it’s being made into a documentary. (You can visit www.BridegroomMovie.com to “like” the documentary on Facebook, follow it on Twitter, and support it on Kickstarter.)

As a writer who has spent years advocating for marriage equality, it’s a story I’ve seen and written about many times. It’s the story of couples like Rob Scanlon and Jay Baker; Eric Rofes and Crispin Hollings; Laurel Hester and Stacy Andree; Rene Price and Betty Jordan; Brett Conrad and Patrick Atkins; Karen Thompson and Sharon Kowalski; Bobbi and Sandi Cote-Whitaker; Sam Beaumont and Earl Meadows; Michael Tartaglia and John Crisci; Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond; Bill Flanigan and Robert Daniel.

It’s the story of couples like two friends of ours.

Emergency Room

It was the morning of our move, and I was checking email while I waited for the movers and various other technical people (phone, cable, etc.) to arrive when I got an email from a friend of ours letting me know about his partner’s funeral. They were a couple of gay dads we met through friends, and followed through their adoption process. We celebrated their son’s adoption with them, attended their wedding, and have kept in contact with them. And now one of them had suddenly died.

The surviving partner told me the story above yesterday. In the midst of all that was mentioned before, while his husband lay unconscious in the hospital, he had to leave, go home, retrieve the legal documents proving his medical power of attorney, and return to the hospital to prove that he had a legal right to be by his husband’s side and to know what was going on.

I’ve written before about this reality that same-sex couples face when the unexpected — which can befall any family — happens, and in the middle of a situation in which you don’t want to be anywhere but at your loved one’s side you have to prove your legal relationship before you’re recognized as having any rights. The ring on your finger means nothing to anyone else but you.

My friend went home, retrieved his legal paper and got back in the hospital in time to be with his husband, who never regained consciousness. Luckily for him, those legal documents were recognized. I immediately thought of the case of Bill Flanigan and Robert Daniel. Their documents weren’t recognized by the hospital, and the results were tragic.

… My friend was at least able to go home and get the legal documents he needed, but I can only imagine what it must be like to have to do that, to be kept from my husband and then to have to leave the hospital in order to get legal documents, all the while not knowing what’s wrong, what’s happening to him, or if he’ll be alive when I get back. Even if we’re able to be together in the end, it’s because we’re allowed to be together.

It’s a chilling reminder of who we are and are not. We are legal strangers to each other. And we are not next of kin.

When I head the president’s remarks in the context of those stories, I wept for joy.

The analysis began the moment President Obama stepped away from the microphone. One theme I heard a few times was that, with his second inaugural address, President Obama was “mainstreaming progressive values”, as Ronald Reagan did for conservatism.

Inclusion, perhaps, was the biggest progressive value on display during the inaugural proceedings. Inclusion seemed to be the theme of this inauguration, not just from the president but from everyone who spoke. Myrlie Evers-Williams didn’t mention any group specifically in her invocation, but she opened the ceremony with the inclusion as a central theme.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfgQlhKXIaM

As we sing the words of belief, “this is my country,” let us act upon the meaning that everyone is included. May the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of every woman, man, boy and girl be honored. May all your people, especially the least of these, flourish in our blessed nation. One hundred fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after the March on Washington, we celebrate the spirit of our ancestors, which has allowed us to move from a nation of unborn hopes and a history of disenfranchised [votes] to today’s expression of a more perfect union. We ask, too, almighty that where our paths seem blanketed by [throngs] of oppression and riddle by pangs of despair we ask for your guidance toward the light of deliverance. And that the vision of those that came before us and dreamed of this day, that we recognize that their visions still inspire us.

Richard Blanco, the first Latino and the first gay inaugural poet, carried the theme of inclusion by his mere presence. Like Evers-Williams’ invocation, Blanco’s poem “One Today” did not mention any specific group, but its imagery pulled together the seemingly disparate threads of the lives of everyday Americans into unifying tapestry, in which every thread was is as vital as any other.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mDrk8AC4G4

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

Rev. Luis Leon, in his benediction, again included gay Americans by name in his prayer for the nation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rA–zItnOVk

We pray for your blessing because without it, we will see only what the eye can see. But with the blessing of your blessing we will see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black or white, male or female, first generation or immigrant American, or daughter of the American Revolution, gay or straight, rich or poor.

And then there was the president himself.

It was the first time that a president has loudly many clearly spoken up for equality. And in this case, he didn’t have to. He had little to gain or lose by not doing so.

It give me hope that this election — in which a majority of Americans rejected the politics of exclusion, and the belief that LGBT Americans don’t count, don’t matter, and don’t deserve equal citizenship or equal dignity — signals a turning point for America, and another step towards true “liberty and justice. FOR ALL.”

I don’t have words to express how I felt hearing the president say these words as I watched with my family. Or how I felt to hear one speaker after another express the same. This is beyond the politics of “tolerance” and a step towards equality and inclusion.

I don’t believe we’d have heard those words from anyone else who might have been sworn in as president today, had things turned out differently in November; or had Americans chosen differently in November.

Thank you, Mr. President for making it clear that you understand and celebrate that — in the words of Langston Hughes — that “we, too, sing America.”

Thank you for making it plain that, while we arrived at this present moment by very different roads — including some that lead through Seneca Falls, Seneca Falls, and Stonewall — we can only truly set our course and move forward together.

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