Reflecting on Obama 50 years after Stonewall
By Guest Columnist ERIC PAULK, deputy director of Georgia Equality
During the eight years the Obamas occupied the White House, two moments stand out vividly in my mind. July 19, 2013: President Obama made the following comments during an impromptu press briefing in the days following the Trayvon Martin verdict – “When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.”
The other moment happened almost three years later. On June 24, 2016, the former president declared: “I’m designating the Stonewall National Monument as the newest addition to America’s National Park System. Stonewall will be our first national monument to tell the story of the struggle for LGBT rights. I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country, the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us.”
Sitting in my friend’s Harlem apartment, seeing the news about the president’s designation felt divinely ordered. First, because in designating Stonewall as a national monument, America’s first black president – a president who had already done more for LGBT communities than all of the other presidents combined – was countering a narrative that black communities are more inherently homophobic than other communities. Second, because it forced us to re-examine LGBT movement history that has often distorted the contributions of black and non-black people of color and failed to acknowledge that the success of the LGBT civil rights movement was built on reproducing the model created during the black civil rights movement.
As a black gay man, these two moments are etched into my memory as an acknowledgement of America’s need to overcome racism and homophobia, and that in our search for common ground, we must go beyond our shared marginalization and pain, to focus on our shared right to dignity.
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the June 28, 1969 event that ushered in the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights movement, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for the Obama years, especially as there has been a resurgence of intolerance for LGBT communities.
This month alone we have seen the hate-motivated murder of a gay man in Decatur; two gay men and a transgender woman killed in Detroit; and on June 13, 23-year-old Zoe Spears, a black trans woman, was killed in a Maryland suburb, just blocks from where another black trans woman was killed in March. Earlier this month the Trump administration denied requests from several United States embassies to fly the rainbow flag in honor of Pride Month, a routine practice under other administrations. There was also the news that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed a rule that, among other things, rolled back existing federal protections based on gender identity and strengthens the ability of health care workers to refuse to provide health services for religious or moral reasons. This tells me that LGBT pride is needed now more than ever.
In many ways, the necessity for LGBT pride runs parallel to the need for black pride. Being black and proud has served and continues to serve as a means to rectify a society and culture that has taught us that being black renders one as less-than, immoral, mentally flawed, and devious.
It is this climate that has made it necessary for hashtags like #BlackBoyJoy and #BlackGirlMagic to exist, the donning of Black Lives Matter T-shirts, and the exulting of “Wakanda forever” as declarations of black pride. This is pride as defense. As such, LGBT pride exists in the same way, to guard against the vitriol, the assault on our morality, our erasure, and the belief that we are not entitled to live openly and unapologetically in our truths. Being forced to defend our dignity on a daily basis, our pride exists as a strategy to overcome.
In his farewell speech, President Obama issued the following edict: “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip-board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. … I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.”
As we reflect on the 50 years that have passed since the Stonewall Riots, it is essential for us to pay homage to those who embodied these words, those change-makers who stood in the gap, literally putting their bodies on the line to ensure an easier path for us to live freely. The work is not done. We must pick up the mantle, and bravely forge ahead knowing that we are all deserving of dignity, and that none of us are free until all of us are free.