Gay rights is civil rights.
To be clear, President Obama did not exactly use those words. But about five minutes into his roughly 20-minute address, Obama echoed the sentiment at the black-tie, star-studded fundraising event hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay advocacy group. Drawing a line between the long, painful struggle of black Americans to the festering frustration of gay Americans that his administration has not done enough for them, Obama said: "It's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans petioning for equal rights half a century ago."
The rhetoric was striking. The country's first minority president -- a son and student of the black civil rights movement -- making a historical connection, tying two groups who've been denied full citizenship.
The image was striking, too, as he told the crowd that "while some may wish to define you solely by your sexual orientation or gender identity alone, you know and I know that none of us wants to be defined by just one part of what makes us whole." In his books and in his speeches, the question of identity -- his father black, his mother white, his early life more transient than most -- has been at his core.
And all woven together, the rhetoric and the image, the moment and the man, gay Americans and those who support their cause increasingly wonder: If not now -- with a Democratic Congress in power, with a Democratic president who says directly to the audience and cameras that "I'm here with you in that fight" -- then when? If not now, right now, then when?
Expectations were high days before Obama said a word in what was called his "big gay rights speech." Big, it certainly was, aired live on C-SPAN and CNN, dissected and analyzed in real-time on various blogs and social networking sites. Another speech, more words, not enough actions -- read many of the comments before the speech. A quick survey of various gay blogs, including AMERICAblog and Pam's House Blend, indicated that the reaction was about the same afterwards.
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Wrote AMERICAblog's John Arovosis:
What did President Obama say new tonight? Absolutely nothing. What did the Human Rights Campaign get in exchange for once again giving our president cover for all of his broken promises to our community? Absolutely nothing.
Wrote Pam's House Blend's Pam Spaulding:
If you're an activist or citizen looking for timelines, actions, use of the bully pulpit, ANYTHING that would indicate to the community that our President was serious about moving on the laundry list of LGBT issues any time soon, you would call it a fail.
As I watched the live stream of the speech online, I flipped through the pages "Why We Can't Wait," the impassioned, 166-page account of segregated Birmingham written by Martin Luther King, Jr., who, like Obama, was a recipient of the Noble Peace Prize. I combed through the chapters, re-reading some of the lines I had highlighted years ago while a student at San Francisco State University. The quote on the book cover read: "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
Why gays can't wait is because 29 states ban same-sex marriages, while the Defense of Marriage Act waits to be repealed. Why gays can't wait is because gays and lesbians serving in the U.S. military, while being sent to fight wars, can't be open about who they are. Why gays can't wait is because people lose their jobs merely because they are gay. Why gays can't wait is because gay rights, after all, is civil rights.
Obama knows this. He's said as much. Now it's time for actions.
Everyone is watching.