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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.”

Eric Paulk

Eric Paulk

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.

Eric Paullk, stonewall

Social progress made over the 50 years since the Stonewall Riots will continue only if everyone picks up the mantle and forges ahead, according to the author. Credit: Johnnie Ray Kornegay III

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.

Note to readers: In addition to serving as deputy director at Georgia Equality, Eric Paulk is an advocate working at the intersections of race, class, and sexuality in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter.



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  1. Chris Johnston June 24, 2019 5:37 pm

    President Obama tried to create a stampede before the facts were known, and thankfully he failed, as he did in so many things while President.
    Eric, you omitted one important fact: George Zimmerman was acquitted. I assume that this is intentional.Report

  2. Facts June 24, 2019 11:08 pm

    O.J. was acquitted too, Chris Johnston. Being acquitted doesn’t mean you’re not guilty as sin.Report

  3. Chris Johnston June 25, 2019 8:31 am

    Completely irrelevant.
    No President tried to initiate a stampede-absent-facts about OJ.Report

  4. MARK RINDER June 25, 2019 9:48 am

    Chris, of COURSE George Zimmerman was acquitted! That’s the point: they’re all acquitted. How many police officers whose actions led to the deaths of those whom they arrested were caught on tape were subsequently found guilty and punished? Hmmmm??? Think about it. This nation is careening down a dangerous path that Erik is wisely counseling us to think long and hard about. I suggest you resist the knee-jerk impulse you’ve been taught to allow to be triggered and think deeply about this. Sincerely, Mark B RinderReport

  5. MARK RINDER June 25, 2019 9:49 am

    *Eric (apologies for the misspelling)Report

  6. Chris Johnston June 25, 2019 1:38 pm

    Mark Rinder, your double standard is showing. In accusing me of being closed-minded, you reveal that you are closed-minded. You cannot have it both ways, no matter how righteous you feel.
    You ignored my major point: we witnessed President Obama attempt to fuel a rush to judgement before the facts were known. It was shameful, and President Obama never apologised, even after the facts were known and George Zimmerman was acquitted.Report

  7. Staci Bush June 25, 2019 1:59 pm

    This country adopted Christian principles to set up our government’s system of checks and balances. Christians are charged with loving others but not necessarily everyone’s behavior. Constitutionally and politically, Pres. Obama was right about LGBT; however, he was morally wrong about embracing the behavior.Report


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