Four years ago Vince Sgambati, a retired teacher with the Syracuse City School District, went with his family to Sparky Town, a delightful and LGBT-friendly Burnet Avenue eatery, to watch Barack Obama sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. This year they decided to stay home on Jan. 21 and watch Obama’s second inauguration in the quiet of their Cumberland Avenue home on the edge of the Syracuse University neighborhood.
Vince has been an Obama supporter although he has not hesitated to criticize a number of the president’s policies. Vince and his partner of 37 years, Jack Stevens, had no particular expectations as they gathered around the television on the second floor of their house along with their 16-year-old son, Jesse.
“Jesse was home from school,” recalls Vince, “because it was Martin Luther King Day. We put the television on. I saw Joe Biden, and then the president, and I heard the poem. We just kinda sat around the TV.”
Then the president spoke these words: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”
“That stopped me in my tracks,” says Sgambati. “I was blown away when he mentioned Stonewall—and he put it on the level of other turning points in other civil rights issues. I thought it was amazing.”
Vince Sgambati was 19 years old when a police raid on a quiet Greenwich Village gay hangout named the Stonewall Inn erupted into a defiant riot. Three days after Obama’s speech, Sgambati still sounds awed to have heard a president mention that seminal moment in LGBT history in his inaugural address. The Stonewall uprising in June 1969 went on for five days as patrons of the bar on Christopher Street waged a pitched battle against the police, their rebellion announcing the arrival of a new attitude within a long-oppressed LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) community.
Barack Obama was a 7-year-old playing in a suburb of Jakarta, Indonesia, when the Stonewall uprising began, literally, on the other side of the globe. Yet he began his second term as president of the United States by declaring, at some political risk, that those who fought back at Stonewall were on the same plane as the activists who gathered in Seneca Falls in 1848 to insist on equal rights for women, and deserved the same status as the civil rights marchers whose attempts to march through Alabama were met with racist violence and shocked a watching nation in 1963.
“It was important. I was very impressed. I thought it was amazing,” Sgambati says. Among other things, he adds, it means the president and his team did their homework. “He could have just made a mention of gay rights or LGBT issues, but this was different, it was much more.”
Stonewall, he reminds us, was not necessarily the beginning of the LGBT movement, but “what happened at Stonewall was that the marginalized within the marginalized had just had enough. They were being locked out of everything, being kept in the shadows of society, and then they started taking away our shadows. When they came into Stonewall you had not just privileged white gay men there: You really had the marginalized among the marginalized. There were many people there whose gender expression didn’t conform.”
The Stonewall rebellion erupted when Greenwich Village revelers fought back against what had become routine harassment of gay life by New York City Police, and is seen as the moment when the LGBT struggle came out of the closet once and for all.
And Stonewall, he notes, is more than just one event. “You start with one incident but it winds up representing something much larger. The larger picture is this: We are coming out of the shadows, we are going to fight. This was turning over police cars, fighting in the streets. I never thought I would hear mention of that in an inauguration speech.”
Sgambati’s own local activism is much more restrained than the Stonewall pioneers, but no less far reaching. He worked on a committee that helped secure passage in 1990 of the Syracuse Fair Practices Act, making our town one of the first in the state to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. He notes that only recently did the city update the law to protect transgendered people and others with different ways of expressing their gender. He is active as a board member of Pride and Joy Families, a Central New York organization that seeks to support LGBT families. One of his goals now is to secure passage of a statewide non-discrimination law known as GENDA, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act. GENDA has been approved by the state Assembly each year for the past five years only to die in the State Senate.
But there was something about the simple fact of being included in the president’s message that was sweeter than any legislative triumph. Most of us don’t find ourselves awed or surprised just by having our existence acknowledged. But for a million Vinces across the nation on Jan. 21, that is what happened, at long last.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.