On Monday, when President Obama uttered that historic statement in his second inaugural speech—the one where he proudly mentioned “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law” and tied the civil rights struggles of “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall”—my mother sent me a text.
She was watching the address from our family’s home in South Carolina.
“I think his speech was very moving and inclusive. Hope it happens,” she wrote.
I didn’t respond by asking her to clarify the “it” to which she was referring, I didn’t need to. I knew in her mind the “it” was marriage equality on a federal level. She was saying she hopes her son, now 36, when he chooses to marry, will have that bond recognized and honored by Washington. Simple as that.
But it wasn’t always.
Republicans have fired back on Obama for never having campaigned on marriage equality in 2008, and for publicly stating he was evolving on the issue. They’ve said that prior to his May 2012 interview with Robin Roberts, he held the same position on the issue as Mitt Romney.
And after the president affirmed what most LGBT Americans felt on a gut level to be the case—that he believes in legalizing same-sex marriage—some Republicans said Obama’s admission meant nothing, that it changed nothing.
They were wrong. And, to an extent, my mother and stepfather are proof of that.
These two people—who to the best of my knowledge have never voted Democratic and didn’t warmly receive my coming out initially—have traveled a path seemingly similar to the president’s. After I told my parents that I believed I was in love with a male graduate student, I received incensed letters and phone calls, followed by periods of little communication, then eventual understanding. Since that turbulent time in the late-‘90s when I came out to them during my junior year of college, my parents have embraced my relationships in their own quiet but always loving way.
Perhaps they’ve privately hoped I’d marry, or perhaps they didn’t. Either way, the subject of marriage, not much of a reality for gay Americans until the previous decade, was rarely spoken about or encouraged in my family. Until now.
What the Republicans who chose to offer that criticism don’t understand is that, on a community level and on a personal level, members of the LGBT community are used to the country evolving on gay rights. Many of us over a certain age are used to our own parents evolving at a measured pace on the issue of accepting their LGBT children and accepting that we deserve to marry and enjoy the same rights—if we’re lucky. Of course, many of us, regardless of age, understand that our parents may never evolve on the issue.
But the one thing I can say, is that in making his historic statements, President Obama helped make history in my family as well: by standing at the podium at the west front of the U.S. Capitol—drawing a line from 1848 and the women’s rights movement through the African-American civil rights movement in 1965 to the beginning of the modern gay rights movement that started in Manhattan’s West Village—announcing that the country’s “gay brothers and sisters” deserved marriage equality, he helped my mother finally give voice to what she’d never truly said to me before.
And that makes all the difference in the world.