Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama Inauguration: Symbol of Change?

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The wave of Obamaniacs that made their way across America to shiver at DC's National Mall knew Barack Obama was not just the forty-fourth president of the United States, but a symbol of historic achievement, of possibility, and yes, of change.

Just a couple of generations out from Rosa Parks and segregated lunch counters, ten years from the lynching of James Byrd, and three and a half years since the mostly black population of New Orleans was left for dead, it meant something that "Hail to the Chief" was finally played for a black man.

Yeah, I get that, even though I went to a high school where the battles of school busing had been fought before I got there, and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison were already required reading in college. David Dinkins was mayor of New York in my first years there. Then Cory Booker took Newark. Denzel took two Oscars. Colin Powell and Condi Rice took the reins as Secretaries of State, and outshone the President.

History exists side by side with the future, and the symbolism of Obama's accomplishment resonates even in Paris where his election led to impromptu celebrations on the metro by people of color, and young black job applicants suddenly vowed to begin including their pictures with their resumes, hoping that the color of their face wouldn't land them in the recycling bin anymore. "Not when there's a black American president."

That's reason enough to celebrate. And in the spirit of the local countdown to "Obama Day," I tried to embrace at least the symbolism of his inauguration. Out with the old, in with the new, the fulfillment of Martin Luther King's dream and the reassertion of America's promises of liberty and justice.

But watching Obama bow his head at the bigot Rick Warren's invocation, I found myself shivering with fury, though according to the good ole boy Warren the proper way to overcome adversity is not via projectile vomiting and rage, but with "a quiet and humble response ... disagreement without being disagreeable."

Warren, mentioning something about "civility," too, in a tasteful jab at the queers uncivilized enough to demonstrate his participation, sounded a lot like George W. Bush in his own inaugural address in 2001. In case you've forgotten, the worst president in history began his term pledging (threatening) to conduct himself with "civility, courage, compassion and character," defining it as the "choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos." And apparently of silence and censorship over opposition.

We know where civility leads. Or should. After eight years of Bush. But for every queer outraged at Warren's presence at Obama's inauguration, it seems there's been another queer online trying to enforce silence. "Save your anger for something important. Warren's just a symbol."

Like Obama's just another president?

If we recognize the power of a symbol of a black man busting open the White House, rending history itself, how can we ignore what it means to put front and center the antigay, anti-choice, ultra-conservative Rick Warren? He's likewise riding a crest of cultural and historical momentum -- even if it's going the other direction.

Despite Obama's speech extolling the virtues of democracy, equality and justice, giving Warren an enormous platform at the inauguration sent a powerful message that in the name of inclusion, bigots have a place in the White House as long as they promise to smile. Bullies have justification to harass queer kids to death at schools. Preachers can excoriate gays and nurture HIV through ignorance, that men can dominate women. For the sake of Obama's symbol of that inclusiveness, queers face exclusion, homelessness, poverty, violence because we, apparently, are not deserving of rights. Who are not human, really, if you listen closely to pastor Rick when the national U.S. media isn't eavesdropping.

Frankly, queers are screwed when the symbol of Change gets caught embracing the symbol of Hate, even if Obama eventually allows us to openly serve in the military, and even dumps DOMA. Because if the black civil rights movement's taught us anything, it's that culture doesn't move in tandem with legislation. Laws go only a short way to solving the burning problems that the symbols of hate pour gasoline on. A black man may be president, but school boards will still find ways to segregate. There's a voting act, but votes have a way of going astray. Free black men are locked in jail in horrible numbers. And what about Latinos, and Asians, and Native Americans? We haven't come anywhere near to dealing with the complexity of race in America.

Obama's choice of the ultra-conservative (and long-winded) Rick Warren to bless his presidency is a reminder that queers have an even longer way to go. Civility and empty rhetoric won't take us there.

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