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Progress for Gay Rights, Because Obama Said So

By Francis Wilkinson
January 24, 2013 9:45 AM EST

We've had a few days now to ponder the significance of President Barack Obama's "Stonewall" moment in his second inaugural address. It was rousing oratory, but does it matter? 

In a speech largely devoted to Obama's vision of a just society, the president elevated the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall gay bar in Manhattan's Greenwich Village to the civic pantheon alongside the 1848 women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York (likewise elevated) and the civil rights marches across Selma's Edmund Pettis Bridge en route to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

"Our journey is not complete," Obama said, "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."

The rhetoric might not have surprised those who contend that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. American society has been moving rapidly toward full acceptance of gay people, and now gay marriage, in recent years -- with and without the president. Obama's words will have limited impact on gay marriage litigation currently in the courts, or on legislation in the states. In a nation with a healthy disdain for politicians and their words, what does a presidential paragraph amount to?

Quite a lot, actually. 

No one person embodies the American nation, just as no one event encompasses the American state. But the presidency exerts gravity beyond its constitutional powers. And grand state occasions, such as a presidential inauguration, convey and shape American ideals from one era to the next.

For all our nonchalance, Americans study what their presidents say on such occasions, and future presidents reprise those utterances and the thoughts that informed them, for new purposes. Obama's full embrace of gay rights is not yet the law of the land. But his inaugural rhetoric fixed gay rights in the national landscape so firmly that they can never be uprooted. 

The concept of gay marriage has a different hold in the U.S. today for a plain reason: The president said so.

Obama, whose political caution left his seat aboard the gay marriage bandwagon too long vacant, already appears to have succeeded in changing attitudes among some core supporters. In a 2010 Pew Research Center poll, a plurality of Hispanics opposed gay marriage while black voters opposed it overwhelmingly, by a two-to-one margin. Yet just two years later, following Obama's endorsement of gay marriage during his re-election campaign, November exit polls revealed that a majority of both groups had joined him in supporting it. 

The remarkable turnaround in that corner of public opinion suggests the power of Obama to influence his base voters, in particular. But it also highlights the inherent power of political leaders in general to shape the political environment -- and to lead. Obama's full-throated support has helped regularize what to many once seemed radical. Legal strictures and prejudice will continue to fall away as other leaders, other voices, add to the force that pulls the arc that shapes our history. 

Politicians sometimes lead a crowd, sometimes follow. But by their unique station, taking advantage of official public platforms, they can do much to solidify emerging social norms. Gay rights are here -- but not all of them; gay marriage is still in transit. Political leaders in Washington and state capitals across the land have the capacity to bring it home. It's easy. All they have to do is speak.  

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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