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Inauguration Memories


Denny Meyer

January 20, 2009

Every generation has its marker, the assassination of President Kennedy and the 9/11 attacks are among a very few events that were instantly understood to be seared in the minds of our entire nation as changing everything.  On January twentieth 2009, the Inauguration of President Obama was instantly understood by our nation, and many others on the planet, to be an event that changed everything as well.  With the TV cameras focused on the Capitol, Barack Hussein Obama emerged onto the steps to become our president.  I was surprised by my own tears, at that moment, as my mind raced back 48 years to the summer 1960 when I was 13 years old and participated in my first Civil Rights March.

As a child of World War II Holocaust refugees, I was raised to believe that "silence in the face of other people's suffering is unconscionable."  As the Rev. Martin Niemöller so famously wrote about Nazi tyranny, "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --Because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --Because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --Because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me."

So, one fine summer day, in the year before our president was born, I and a fellow Jewish son of refugees righteously rode our bicycles through the quiet postwar white suburbs of Long Island to participate in an NAACP picket-line protest.  Angry bigots were outraged that two little white boys dared to march with blacks.  I was hit in the head with a rock.  In the moments before, I was filled with innocent youthful idealism for the future; in the moments afterwards, I understood the reality of discrimination.  And I began a lifetime of determined activism.  When I saw Barack Obama emerge to be sworn in as president, that long ago moment flashed in my mind, and I wept.  At last.

When Senator Diane Feinstein stepped to the podium to start the Inauguration proceedings, my mind flashed back again, to the summer of 1978 when she stood on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall and announced to a horrified city that Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated.  I have a lot of historical baggage; I'm an old man.  These were the things that went through my mind as I watched our new President be sworn in.

Rev. Rick Warren gave his invocation, and I was offended by his inappropriate ignorant arrogance in his proclaiming or claiming a Christian propriatarianism of our American moment of joy.  I, as a Jewish child of refugees, volunteered to serve my county in our armed forces for ten years; and he tells me this is a Christian nation?  The father of the man about to become our president was a Muslim; how could this detail escape Warren's expressed respect, I wondered.  A dear friend of mine, a newly minted American citizen, is a Hindu.  What must he have thought hearing Warren's words, I wondered.  Appalling!  In contrast to that ghastly invocation, moments later our president said, "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers"

And Arethra Franklin sang her heart out bringing joy to our nation; and I knew at that moment that the American flag was once again ours.  I could carry it proudly, as I always have, as a gay veteran in parades without people wondering what my political beliefs were...or something.

When our president put his hand on Lincoln's Bible, I got goose bumps; I'm just telling you what happened.  And when he spoke, I suddenly knew what hope meant.  As a child of refugees from tyranny, as the son of an illegal immigrant (my mother--who cleaned toilets to earn a living when she first arrived in America) I understood what President Obama meant when he said, "This is the price and the promise of citizenship."  As he went on, I wondered, What will this cold new dawn in American history bring?  For the first time since I was a boy, so long ago, filled with idealism riding my bicycle to the next town to join a picket line, I had hope, real hope.  For me, it is not just about him being the embodiment of hope; it is that a majority of Americans had the courage to vote for him and make the beginning of the end of hate happen.

Rev. Lowery's benediction, blessed with the wisdom and cantankerous freedom of age, was the epitome of interfaith inclusiveness.  He began, "God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou, who has brought us thus far along the way, thou, who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray."  And near closing he intoned, "And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.  And as we leave this mountain top, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will."  With no disrespect for our president at all, Pastor Lowery's benediction wins the prize for the best spoken words of the day, in my view.  His elder statesmanlike timbre and text brought my mind back to the days of King and Kennedy, when erudite men such as they could stir people's souls with every breath of liberation they uttered.

As the day progressed, my mind flashed back again, some twenty years, wishing my lover who died of AIDS, a beautiful man of many colors who immigrated here from the Philippines, had lived to see this moment.

And, aside from having to save the world and the economy, our president has promised to end another minor detail of discrimination by signing the repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy.  As a gay veteran who served in silence for ten years, during and after Vietnam, that means a lot to me.

Happy days are here again.

©  2009  Gay Military Signal