This last sleepy, dreary, overcast Saturday, you might have missed President Barack Obama as he gave what many might say in the future was one of his best speeches of his presidential years. It was a commencement address at Howard University, and it was a call for what he has consistently stood for: hope. It was also an urge to those in attendance to get involved, and not be afraid to engage with those who do not agree with us, for change only happens with communication.


The speech had me in tears and I urge you to watch it. It brought me back to my first meeting with President Obama who, at the time, was Sen. Obama. It was 2008, he was running to be president and at that time many in the LGBT community didn’t think he was clear enough on our issues. In Pennsylvania, I was the flag bearer of that fight. He personally felt my sting on a daily basis, until he was forced to address my attacks during an interview with a CBS reporter. We met a week later by accident. When I introduced myself, he took my hand, pulled me forward and said, “So, you’re Mark Segal.” With a hurt look on his face, he added, “I’m really good on LGBT issues and we need to talk.”

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What I took away from that first experience with him was how much that hurt look was one of truth and how he was really upset thinking that someone with political knowledge of the LGBT community didn’t realize what he had to do was get elected first in order to create change. But he understood that I had to stick to my stance; we both knew our positions, even though they were opposed to each other, and we both knew at that moment that we’d be allies. That’s reading a lot into it, but that is exactly what happened. In a moment, we knew that we had similar views on politics and how to make change.


We did talk and I’ve served as his official host, and most importantly, he helped me spearhead what is the largest LGBT brick-and-mortar project of his administration: the John C. Anderson Apartments, our LGBT-friendly affordable senior home. And thanks to White House involvement, it was built and opened in record time.


That same spirit or political philosophy of willingness to communicate with whom many might call enemies is why Pennsylvania got marriage equality a year before the Supreme Court ruled it so nationally. When former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett compared marriage equality to incest, rightfully the LGBT community was outraged. I saw that as an opportunity for change. Just hours after the remark, I was on the phone with the governor’s office that led to a meeting in the governor’s residence, which changed his position on supporting LGBT nondiscrimination in Pennsylvania. He stated that he’d sign it if passed by the legislature. And less than a year later, those conversations led to his not appealing the federal ruling on same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania.


Here’s the point. I made no secret of that meeting. In fact, I wanted our community to know as I built that relationship. Others at that meeting were not so public, since they feared retribution from our community; the LGBT activist community was, to say the least, disapproving. Others who were at that first meeting saw that disapproval and for the most part kept quiet about it. This, as you’d expect by now, didn’t change my experience of engaging.


The reason for that is simple: Communication brings change. If we do not engage, we fail to make change. I know this personally since it has been a constant in my life’s struggle for LGBT equality.


The first was when I worked with a city councilman who had hurled homophobic slurs. His name was Thacher Longstreth. Through dialogue, we became friends, and I was called a traitor by people in the community. Thacher, that man who had hurled horrible words, voted for Philadelphia’s controversial domestic-partners law and became a supporter of PFLAG.


Later, the man who embodied homophobia in Philadelphia was City Council President John Street. Again, we began to engage in discussion. Later, when he was mayor, he became the most LGBT-friendly mayor the city had seen to that point.


So President Obama’s talk at Howard University was one where he was expressing to the graduating students of that historic African-American school a philosophy that resonated with me, since it’s a mission we share: one of engaging rather than just talking. That is the other side of the equation: walking the walk.


Mr. President, you’re preaching to the choir.

 

Mark Segal, Philadelphia Gay News publisher, is the nation’s most-award-winning commentator in LGBT media. You can follow him on Facebook at MarkSegalPGN or Twitter at PhilaGayNews. His memoir AND THEN I DANCED is available online and at your favorite bookstore.

 

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