Rosa Parks. Hank Aaron. Jim Brady. These are just a few of the “everyday Americans who have found themselves in the path of history, often unwittingly, and are given a seat of honor with the president’s spouse — and the eyes of the world upon them,” Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the National First Ladies’ Library historian, told me Tuesday night.
Add to that list Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in last year’s Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges , which made us a more perfect union by extending same-sex-marriage rights to every state. Obergefell, whose demand to be listed as the spouse on his husband’s death certificate turned out to be the tipping point in the marriage equality battle, joined 22 other everyday Americans as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama during President Obama’s final State of the Union address.
To some, Obergefell’s presence might be a merely symbolic nod to last year’s historic ruling. To those who oppose marriage equality — including Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who refused to marry same-sex couples and was also in attendance Tuesday night — it might be considered a stick in the eye. But symbols matter, and the first couple is the master of them.
With her choice of guests — who also included Refaai Hamo, a Syrian refuge; U.S. Air Force Sgt. Spencer Stone, who helped thwart a terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train; and Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella — Michelle Obama showed us the tableau vivant that the president spoke of when he said, “The world . . . respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith.” Millions watched as a rapt Obergefell listened to the president explain that through our “spirit of discovery and innovation . . . that’s how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.”
“Obama has used the bully pulpit, including SOTU and inaugural addresses, to make clear that LGBT people are a vital part of the American cultural fabric,” said Gary Gates, formerly of UCLA’s Williams Institute. What a difference it’s made to so many.
“I live my days in this nation feeling more appreciated, more appreciative and more enthusiastic to show my stripes as an LGBT American,” said Berlin Sylvestre, 35, married 16 months to her wife.
“It means so much to see the president and first lady embracing Jim Obergefell in such an important and public way, and to hear the president affirm so powerfully that recognizing the equality of all people is not just a political issue, but a moral and spiritual issue as well,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “I hope the president’s words are heard by the parents and families of every LGBT young person in this country.”
This president sees us. He hears us. He understands much of what it’s like to be the subject of vitriol and fear. As Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry, told me, “President Obama played an enormous role as a champion and moral leader and in explaining to the American people why it’s important to evolve, as he put it, and to embrace gay people as part of America’s civil rights arc.” Of course, he might have done more and done it sooner, but that is a question for historians to tackle.
Although symbolism matters, Obama’s record and legacy to the LGBT community is both material and unprecedented. Ernest Hopkins, a 55-year-old African American and legislative director for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, summed up the president’s accomplishments by pointing out that “[repealing] ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ marriage equality, EEOC rulings, and the presidential executive order for federal workers and contractors are some of his best [LGBT] achievements.” Add to the list same-sex adoptions, the greater ease for trans people to change their gender markers in order to obtain something as basic as a passport, and his critical leadership on HIV/AIDS.
That’s how evolution happens. One day at a time, one decision at a time, leading inexorably toward justice. The president’s successful strategy was built on political will, a courageous heart, and the vision of a more perfect union — not to mention the activist muscle provided by groups such as Freedom to Marry, Lambda Legal and GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders).
Asked what it was like to sit in the first lady’s box, especially as the president quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word” — Obergefell said: “We the people. This core American belief is why the other marriage-equality plaintiffs and I, and so many others before us, stood up to fight for our rights.”
Obergefell may be as unlikely a hero as other everyday Americans. But in honoring him with a seat at the speech, the president and first lady confirmed that the LGBT community has the right to a place at the American table — a very visible and symbolic one at that.