President Barack Obama. (Getty Images)
Catalina Camia, USA TODAY
President Obama's references to same-sex marriage and the Stonewall riots in his inauguration speech were hailed by gay men and lesbians, who view them as a watershed in their quest for civil rights.
It is believed to be the first time in U.S. history that an inaugural address discussed both same-sex marriage and gay rights.
Obama's mention of Stonewall -- a New York City bar that was the scene of violent clashes between police and gay people in 1969 -- stood out Monday. The president equated Stonewall to Seneca Falls, home of the women's rights movement, and Selma, the town in Alabama where civil rights supporters were beaten in 1965 as they marched peacefully for voting rights.
Obama also made a nod to upcoming arguments before the Supreme Court, which will take up two cases dealing with gay marriage. The justices will hear arguments March 26-27 on legal challenges to the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8.
"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," Obama said. "For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said it was "completely gratifying" to hear Obama's words.
"What this president is doing is he is setting the bar higher -- not for himself but for all of America," Sainz said in an interview. "When he is saying that our march towards freedom will not end until marriage equality is the law of the land ... It makes it very, very hard for those dismissive of equality to be seen as rational actors now."
Public opinion polls show attitudes have changed. A Gallup Poll last year found 50% of Americans say marriage between same-sex couples should be valid, compared with 27% who said so in 1996. A Pew Research Center survey taken in December found more support (48%) than opposition (43%) for same-sex marriage.
Nine states -- Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington -- and the District of Columbia have now legalized same-sex marriage.
After saying for years that his views on the subject were "evolving," Obama said last May that it was important for him to "affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."
In his first term as president, Obama also successfully pressed Congress to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prevented gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
"Today, President Obama made history with a clear and passionate declaration of the fundamental rights of LGBT Americans, and all Americans," said Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, one of the groups that pushed for repeal of the military policy.
Robinson said lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people "expect great progress over the next four years" on more issues.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said in a statement that her organization agreed wholeheartedly with Obama's words in his inauguration speech.
"It's now time for the president -- and for all of us -- to finish the job of ensuring that every American gets a fair shake," Carey said. "President Obama has repeatedly shown he is willing to fight for us. We have another four years to keep the momentum going."