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Obama’s gay rights remarks: Inspiration and watershed or ‘thumb in the eye of people of faith?’

WASHINGTON DC - JANUARY 21:  The Lesbian And Gay BAssociatimarch as presidential inaugural parade winds through nation's capital January

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: The Lesbian And Gay Band Association march as the presidential inaugural parade winds through the nation's capital January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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Updated: February 23, 2013 6:37AM



President Barack Obama’s historic inaugural comments about gay rights could influence everything from an Illinois same-sex marriage bill to kids struggling with their sexual identities, key figures in Illinois’ gay community said Monday.

State Rep. Deborah Mell (D-Chicago) was sitting on a sofa at home, watching the inaugural address with her wife, Christin Baker, when Obama put New York’s Stonewall riots — a watershed event in the gay rights movement — on the same footing as key moments in the women’s and civil rights movements.

The journey to equality, Obama continued, “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.’’

Such words could be pivotal to kids wrestling with their sexual identities, said Mell, the daughter of Ald. Dick Mell (33rd).

“I don’t think you can underestimate the power that has on a kid who is coming out of the closet or is struggling with who they are, or their family is struggling,’’ Mell said.

“I remember when I was growing up. To hear the president say that would make things a little bit easier when you go to school and feel so lonely.’’

Leaders on both sides of the gay marriage issue saw Obama’s remarks as a further endorsement of same-sex marriage, which the president said in May he personally supported.

Obama’s message Monday was so clear and strong that state Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) predicted it would give impetus to his bill to make Illinois the 10th state to legalize same-sex marriage.

“I think it will make a huge difference — the way the president spoke of it as the right thing to do, fulfilling the dream of equality in our country,’’ said Harris.

“Everyone has a sense that history has totally changed in America. The narrative has changed.’’

But David E. Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, called Obama’s comments “disappointing.’’

“The president is using his position to promote the homosexual political agenda,’’ Smith said. “He’s furthering the notion that one’s sexual identity is a civil right. It’s not a civil right. ...

“When did we have the debate as to whether sexual identity is a special right that needed special protections from the state or federal government?” Smith asked.

Gays have “the right to live the life they want” but they should not be “coming to our Legislature, demanding we change our state laws so they can feel good about their chosen lifestyle,’’ Smith said.

Pastor John Kirkwood of the Grace Gospel Center in Bensenville went even further, calling Obama’s remarks an “insult to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’’ as well as “insulting to every woman” and “every African American who lived through” the tumult of the pre-civil rights era.

Kirkwood said Obama’s remarks contradict biblical teachings. Said Kirkwood of the president: “He never misses an opportunity to stick his thumb in the eye of people of faith.’’

Rick Garcia, director of the Civil Rights Agenda’s Equal Marriage Illinois Project, said he was working at home on a computer when he heard Obama mention “Stonewall’’ — the site of 1969 riots following a police raid on a gay Greenwich Village bar — in the same sentence as Seneca Falls and Selma, critical sites in the women’s and civil rights movements.

“When he said that,” Garcia said, “I couldn’t stop crying because the president of the United States acknowledged my people, my community, and said all of us are created equal.’’

It may not have been prudent for Obama to make such comments during his first inaugural address, when, as the first African American president, Garcia said, “he had to be careful in reaching out to everyone, so he couldn’t be too far left or too far right.’’

But as Obama begins his second term, Garcia said, “it’s a different story. And I’m heartened and touched and excited by what the president did. .... It’s unbelievable the impact this will have.’’

Mayoral advisor David Spielfogel, whose gay civil union 1 1/2 years ago was presided over by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, called Obama’s inauguration comments an “incredible validation” of the change that has hit the same-sex marriage debate in the last six months.

“By tying the struggle for marriage equality to other important civil rights battles, the president sent a very meaningful sign to the millions of Americans who are waiting to enjoy the rights and responsibilities of marriage,’’ Spielfogel said.

Contributing: Fran Spielman



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