When President Obama in his Inaugural Address elevated the struggle for gay rights to the level of the civil rights and women’s rights movements, he also lifted the hopes and aspirations of many in the local gay community,
Now gay-rights leaders, thrilled by Obama’s passionate support in his address Monday, hope to see action on a federal level that turns his call for equality into law.
“I think the most important thing the Congress can do is a nondiscrimination law that adds people’s orientation to that of gender, age, religion, race and creed,” said Tim Moran, publisher of outcomebuffalo.com, a gay and lesbian news website.
“A gay person or lesbian can be fired for no reason other than who they love, or who their family is. In New York State, we’re lucky to have a law against that, but there are other states where gay people are still living their own personal hell, still living in fear.”
Marvin Henchbarger, executive director of Gay and Lesbian Youth Services, said she wants to see stronger protections for gay marriage.
“The next big push for full equality is getting rid of the Defense of Marriage Act at the federal level,” she said. “That would allow our marriages to be recognized and gifted with a whole lot of privileges that those of us who are now married to same-sex partners do not get.”
Obama brought up the subject of gay equality twice in his Inaugural Address. He equated the police action at Stonewall Inn, a gay hangout in Greenwich Village, credited with launching the modern gay-rights movement, with Seneca Falls, site of the pioneering women’s rights convention, and Selma, Ala., where one of the civil rights movement’s bloodiest and most dramatic confrontations occurred.
Mentioning Stonewall with Seneca Falls and Selma was a turning point, several people said.
Laurie Dean Torrell, executive director of Just Buffalo Literary Center, said she “burst into tears” when she heard the comparison while driving in her car.
Jonathan D, Katz, a University at Buffalo professor who directs doctoral studies in the Visual Studies Program, was also deeply moved by Obama’s words.
“It was just thrilling. The speech was greeted by me and, I think, most other people involved in the [lesbian gay bisexual transgender] movement as historic and a kind of game changer,” Katz said.
Daniel DeVoe, a 24-year-old second-year law student at the University at Buffalo, was also jubilant.
“It means everything,” he said. “To us it isn’t just a political issue to have an opinion about – these are our lives, and it’s about our value as human beings. Growing up, I never thought I would see us validated in this way. I think for gays and lesbians my age and younger, this is going to be the new normal.”
DeVoe, who is president of OUTLaw, an LGBT student organization, said this new recognition also will save lives.
“Somewhere there’s a gay teenager feeling that his life is worthless. This week he heard his president tell the nation that he’s included in the American dream … That can mean the difference between life and death.”
But putting gay rights on a par with civil rights has been problem in the past for many African-Americans.
The Rev. William Gillison of Mount Olive Baptist Church said he didn’t believe Stonewall should have been mentioned alongside Selma.
“When you equate whatever it is that people who are in that community desire to have with Selma, Ala., and what caused Selma, until I can understand what is the problem or problems, it becomes hard for me to see how that can be equal to the struggle of a people who are so easily identified just by the color of their skin,” Gillison said.
“Personally, I didn’t think it belonged there. Biblically, I don’t accept it. Do I force my biblical beliefs on others? No, but I certainly voice them.”
The Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse of Bethel AME Church also is biblically opposed to homosexuality, but he said he viewed Obama’s inclusion of gay rights as a matter of equality.
“I thought the speech was an introduction to the new demographics that are about to overtake the country. He was addressing the things that the new demographic thinks are important priorities for the country. He dealt with women’s issues, he dealt with gay issues, with immigration, with climate change and social justice for every citizen,” Stenhouse said.
“I can’t support gays and that lifestyle, but from a social-justice issue, are they due the same rights? I have no problem with everyone having equal protection under the law.”
Sarah Bishop, a board member of Pride Center of Western New York, said she’s “cautiously optimistic” about what will happen next.
“I’m really excited and hopeful when I hear his words, but he needs to put policies in action to match them,” Bishop said.