When President Barack Obama noted “our gay brothers and sisters” and their struggle for civil rights in his inaugural speech on Monday, he was making history: He was the first president to cite the LGBT community during the keynote presidential address.
A NBC News review of past presidential inaugural speeches turned up no prior mentions of gays and lesbians, though Obama and former President Bill Clinton did note the struggle for gay rights -- primarily the bid to serve openly in the military -- in State of the Union speeches.
“Our journey is not complete 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,” Obama said Monday.
The president’s comments drew praise from LGBT rights groups and advocates.
One, columnist Dan Savage, commented on Obama's grouping together of the key moments from the women's rights, Civil Rights and gay rights movements: “Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall - thank you for that, Mr. President.”
Fred Sainz, of the Human Rights Campaign, told NBC News: “It’s a totally different game when the president of the United States is on your side … this president has said things about LGBT people that many of our own families are either not able or not willing to say.”
But Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which has spearheaded votes banning gay marriage in many states, took exception to Obama linking the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City -- which launched the gay rights movement -- to the Selma voting rights march in the Civil Rights era.
“Same-sex marriage is not a civil right,” he told NBC News, noting that millions of Americans had voted to ban it. “To try and compare in any way the attempt to redefine marriage with the Civil Rights movement is simply false. I think that the president’s forgetting about the most important group affected by this and their civil rights, and that’s children having the civil right to have both a mom and a dad.”
Obama has been incorporating LGBT issues more in his speeches and public addresses since he came out in support of same-sex marriage last May, Sainz said. He had used the “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” line in a May 14, 2012, address to graduating students at the Barnard College Commencement Ceremony in New York.
He has also cited gay rights in at least three State of the Union addresses: In 2010, he used it to launch his bid to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy under which openly-gay and lesbian members of the armed forces could be kicked out of service because of their sexual preference; and in 2011, he noted the ending of that policy in the coming year. In 2012, he again said sexual preference was not a barrier to anyone serving in the military.
Clinton made a single mention of the LGBT community in his 2000 State of the Union address, when he cited the Matthew Shepard case. Shepard was killed in Wyoming in October 1998 by two men who kidnapped him, beat him and left him tied to a split-rail fence because he was gay.
But Clinton, who guided “don’t ask, don’t tell” through Congress, did not mention the LGBT community in his inaugural speeches.
“We just weren’t at that point in history, we just weren’t there yet,” Sainz said, adding that Obama's "speech is definitely reflective of the times we are in.”
Those times include upcoming U.S. Supreme Court arguments over same-sex marriage and upcoming legislative battles in Illinois and Rhode Island over whether gays and lesbians can wed. The high court will also hear a case challenging a federal law that bans providing benefits to federal workers whose spouses are of the same sex.
“The importance of those sentences (said by Obama) are that our fight is still very much ahead of us,” Sainz said.
NBC's Jack Styczynski contributed to this report.