Obama at Barnard Speaks of Activism "From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall"

Posted by Chris Geidner
May 14, 2012 2:25 PM |

barnard-obama.jpg[Photo: President Barack Obama at the graduation ceremony for Barnard College. (Photo from Barnard College/Asiya Khaki.)]

President Obama today gave the commencement address for Barnard College moments after the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, Evan Wolfson, was awarded the Barnard Medal of Distinction by the women's college.

In Obama's address, given less than a week after he said that he believed same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, the president appears to be fully integrating "gay rights" -- although there was no direct mention of transgender equality -- in his speeches.

Screen shot 2012-05-14 at 2.00.16 PM.pngIn part, Obama said:

Remember that making your mark on the world is hard. It takes patience. It takes commitment. It comes with plenty of setbacks and it comes with plenty of failures. 

But whenever you feel that creeping cynicism, whenever you hear those voices say you can't make a difference, whenever someone tells you to set your sights lower, the trajectory of this country should give you hope.

Previous generations should give you hope. What young generations have done before should give you hope. Young folks who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, didn't just do it for themselves. They did it for other people.

That's how we achieved women's rights, that's how we achieved voting rights, that's how we achieved workers' rights, that's how we achieved gay rights, that's how we've made this union more perfect.

And if you're willing to do your part now, if you're willing to reach up and close that gap between what America is and what America should be, I want you to know that I will be right there with you. If you're ready to fight for that brilliant, radically simple idea of America that no matter who you are or what you look like, no matter who you love or what god you worship, you can still pursue your own happiness, I will join you every step of the way. 

Seneca Falls is a reference to the Seneca Falls Convention, often looked to as the birthplace of the fight for women's equal rights, while Selma, Alabama -- most notably the Selma to Montgomery march --  is seen as a turning-point in the national fight for racial equality. Obama here is linking those fights to the riots at the Stonewall Inn, where police had raided a gay bar in June 1969, in a move often cited as the launch of the modern LGBT equality movement. 

With employment, housing, lending and other areas of public life still not subject to nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation or gender identity, and with the Defense of Marriage Act still on the books, Obama's use of "achieved" with "gay rights" is overstating the legal reality, but advances -- from the president to polls to daily life -- are there. The same, for that matter, could be said of women's rights, voting rights and workers' rights.

The speech comes two days after the presumptive Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, gave the commencement speech at Liberty University, where he reiterated his opposition to marriage equality.

In part, Romney said:

The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family. As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.

[NOTE: This post was expanded with the final update at 2:50 p.m.]

[Photo: President Obama after his Barnard College commencement address, with Evan Wolfson, second from right.]

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