Words of Wisdom
Barack Obama's second inauguration address was a landmark moment in the global campaign for LGBTI equality. Rodney Croome examines its implications both in Australia and overseas.
It was a historic moment when Barack Obama became the first US president to mention the struggle for gay and lesbian equality in his inaugural address, but exactly what are the implications of his ground-breaking words?
Naturally, the biggest impact has been in the US where Obama’s speech has heightened hopes his second term will be even better for LGBTI equality than his first. In particular, advocates hope the Obama administration will argue in favour of marriage equality, or at least in favour of federal recognition of state same-sex marriages, in landmark Supreme Court hearings due soon.
Globally, Obama’s comments will have their most dramatic impact in those African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries where LGBTI people still live in fear of gaol or execution. As a successful black president who rejects the narrative of a clash of east and west, Obama has immense influence in the developing world. His words will uplift those voices of moderation and tolerance, from Libya to Singapore, who have the power to improve the lives of millions of LGBTI people.
In Australia the impact of Obama’s words may be less dramatic but it will be just as pervasive. The most obvious message for this country is that our political leaders’ opposition to marriage equality increasingly isolates them and us from the western mainstream.
That message is particularly sharp for Julia Gillard who claims she shares Obama’s political values. By being returned for a second term Obama showed marriage equality wins elections. By talking up the issue in his inaugural speech he confirmed it is an indispensable part of the contemporary progressive project.
It is hard to see how this could leave Julia Gillard unmoved. If she doesn’t want to be remembered as the last Labor leader to oppose marriage equality, and if she doesn’t want to squander the immense electoral advantage of supporting the issue, she must evolve as Obama has done, and quickly.
But even more important than the political implications of Obama’s inaugural address for Australia is its cultural impact. To explain what I mean I’ll return to exactly what the newly-sworn President said:
“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 ... 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.”
With these words Obama went further than simply saying LGBTI people should be treated fairly. He put such treatment in the context of the long struggle for equality, liberty and individual dignity that has defined US and western history. Seneca Falls was the first women’s rights conference in the world. The Selma marches marked the high point of the civil rights movement. Stonewall was, of course, where the modern gay rights movement began. “The most evident of truths” – the equality of all people – not only drove all these movements. It is the foundational value of modern democracy, from the US Declaration of Independence through every subsequent iteration of human rights and repudiation of authoritarianism.
In effect, Obama said to all those who continue to oppose marriage equality in his country and ours that they have set themselves in opposition to the values that underpin our respective nations and the arc of history which has brought those values into ever sharper focus.
In the eyes of the world, Barack Obama has confirmed he is an unwavering champion LGBTI equality. But in the eyes of history, he will be remembered for adding a new cornerstone to the foundation of democracy.
Main Photo (top): Getty Images