The press has not gotten over it. The president, in his inaugural address, included Stonewall in the short list of significant moments in the great civil rights movements in this country. He said, “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” Seneca Falls, New York, was a town where, in 1848, there was a convention of women who effectively started the women’s suffrage movement. Selma happened during our lifetime and was the town in Alabama where Martin Luther King began a march to Montgomery. This march would demand explanation for the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, an unarmed voting rights demonstrator, and publicize the need for a new Voting Rights Act. As the demonstrators marched out of Selma, on Sunday, March 7, 1965, they crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge. They could see the end of the bridge and a crowd of cops and of state police waiting there. The marchers knew they would be beaten if they proceeded. They proceeded, and the police attacked the unarmed marchers. All this was caught on film and televised nationally. “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, became one of the great defeats of southern segregationists. Selma became the staging ground for two more marches later in the week, with the number of marchers increasing from 525 in the first march, to 8,000 in the third. In response, President Lyndon Johnson and the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Everybody noticed what Obama had done, as soon as the word was out of his mouth. He listed Stonewall with Seneca Falls and Selma! The press specifically focussed on the fact that Obama “used the word gay!” Talking heads kept saying on all the networks, No president has ever done that before. The talking heads fooled around with what that meant. These talking heads were principally straight people, so what they had to say had all the subtlety of white people, in 1965, whispering in the Court House in Selma when a black citizen walked in to register. Now the gay community is weighing in on what Obama did and on what it feels like to have the President of the United States refer to our iconic moment of revolution. I would say, for one thing, it is hard to feel like a revolutionary when the president takes our moment of revolution and makes it his own.
But there is something else. We have long since forgotten the anguish and struggle and pain that caused Seneca Falls and Selma to be what they are today in the national memory. Today we remember mainly the heroism of the women and of black Americans, and those who opposed them hardly matter anymore. We remember these times and these places as triumphs in movements that changed America.
So, what Obama did in his speech—by putting us where he did—was to make an implicit promise to gay people, that there will come a time when those who opposed us most of my life will be hardly remembered, and gay people, instead of being seen as deviates who demanded way too much, will be remembered for their heroism. That’s the promise contained in his putting us where he put us in his address. We will finally end as feminists and civil rights demonstrators have ended—as American heroes.
A person with a long memory may remember with what skepticism I have thought of “American heroes.” I don’t like the concept very much. But when our President, an African-American himself of mixed race parentage, tells us that this is how we are going to be remembered and puts us in such company, I am willing to accept his promise with gratitude.