I must admit, the first time I watched President Obama’s second inaugural, I completely missed Stonewall.
It came toward the end of the president’s address, and evidently my attention was beginning to drift.
So I watched the speech a second time, and I missed the reference a second time. It took reading the transcript for me to finally track down the first-ever citation of the gay rights movement’s inception in a major presidential address.
As something of a history buff, I am prone to lapse into fits of nostalgia. Because I find certain junctures in the past so very interesting, I cannot help but think how much fun it would be to fire up my flux capacitor and spend some time living there.
It is a common American practice, even in the best of times, to wallow in our greatest hits, pining wistfully for our country’s innocent early days. Life was so much better back then, was it not?
President Obama’s inaugural speech was a useful reminder, if we needed one, of how very wrong that is.
For the uninitiated: Stonewall is the name of a gay bar in Greenwich Village that was raided by police in June 1969, provoking a series of riots that led, in the messiest possible way, to the modern push for gay liberation and gay rights.
The message of Obama’s alliterative allusion—intended or not—is that there has never been a better time to be alive in America than now. As exciting as the big bangs of various civil rights movements must have been for those on the front lines, to actually live in those times, on a day-to-day basis, was infinitely more painful than it is today, and is a fate not to be wished upon anyone, not least upon oneself.
We romanticize the past, but we do so at our extreme peril.
Surely no cognizant person today needs to be informed why, say, a typical black person might prefer life in the present to, say, the Deep South in 1955. Or why a woman would think twice before voluntarily zapping back to 1919. The indictments against America’s past indiscretions write themselves.
It is simply a fact that the majority of U.S. history has pretty well sucked for members of most minority groups. To recognize this is a healthy and necessary check on the usual banging on about how America can do no wrong and has, from day one, been the greatest country in the history of forever.
As if this truth were not uncomfortable enough, we must then face the logical next step—and the secondary implication of the president’s speech—which is that, just as surely as we view the present as a vast improvement over the past, we will someday regard the time we currently occupy with a very critical eye as well.
It is extraordinary that same-sex marriage is now legal in nine states, when less than a decade ago it was legal in none. (For good measure, consensual gay sex was itself illegal in 14 states until the Supreme Court intervened in 2003.) But what will we think in, say, another decade or two when the practice is universal?
I suppose it is a half-empty vs. half-full situation, realizing how far we have come but also how much farther we have yet to go.
The essential point is that one is entitled—perhaps even duty-bound—to take both views, not having to choose one over the other. America is a land of contradictions, and we have no cause to deny it.
After all, it is our contradictions that compel us to continually push ourselves to be better. They are what led our defense secretary, just this week, to announce our armed forces will finally permit women to serve in combat.
And they are what led a U.S. president who eight months ago was publicly opposed to same-sex marriage to proclaim to a worldwide audience, “If we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”