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Gay rights supporters praise Obama's inaugural speech

January 22, 2013 |  6:10 am

Supporters of same-sex marriage demonstrate outside a San Francisco courthouse in 2011. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Monday wasn't the kind of day that sent thousands of gay Californians into the streets waving rainbow flags and weeping tears of joy. Demonstrations like that usually are reserved for milestones -- court decisions, election results, legislative breakthroughs.

Actions, not words.

But words still matter. And on the occasion of President Obama's second inauguration, his call for equality resonated from San Francisco's Castro District to West Hollywood.

In West Hollywood, Chaz Knight said he found himself wondering Monday how Obama's words would sound to a teenage kid in the rural South. How freeing it would be, he figured, to hear the president declare that this country's work would not be done "until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law."

"I thought of a small family in Arkansas and their 13-year-old son who hasn't come out yet, and how great he's got to feel," Knight said as he strolled along Santa Monica Boulevard, headphones on, iced coffee in hand.

When Obama told the world that "if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well," he brought the issue of gay marriage "into everyone's home, whether they like it or not," Knight said.

"I never expected in my lifetime to hear our president talk like that," an emotional George Roehm said as the inaugural parade tromped silently along on a muted television screen in San Francisco's Twin Peaks Tavern, known as the Castro's answer to "Cheers."

It is believed to be the first gay bar in the country that uncovered its windows, opened its doors and let the world look inside. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently voted to designate the bright and cozy saloon an official city landmark.

That heartened Roehm, who has co-owned the Twin Peaks for nearly a decade. But it was a different kind of history that overwhelmed him Monday. As Obama likened the gay rights movement to campaigns for civil rights and women's suffrage, Roehm texted a friend in Seattle before the president was even done talking.

Obama, Roehm thumbed, "makes me so proud to be an American!!"

Lizbeth Flores, 32, said she believes that cultural tides have shifted in favor of the gay community, and that the president has been a positive force.

"Real change is happening now," said the Long Beach resident who works in collections. "It's way different now than five years ago. We're more comfortable being out there and being ourselves."

It's as simple as no longer feeling bashful about holding her girlfriend's hand in the grocery store, she said.

Now that Obama is in his second term -- free of the pressure of reelection -- she said she's confident the president will become an even stronger advocate and more progress will come. She noted the states that have legalized same-sex marriage; more will follow, she contended.

"Finally," she said, "it's happening."

Stan Mallard had a more tempered optimism. Despite the positives that the president has been a proponent of, Mallard said, more must come -- and the 51-year old Long Beach resident isn't sure that can happen in just the next four years.

The president, he said, has done "a lot toward the good, but not to the extent we have equal rights under the law."

He's been with his partner for 23 years, but he wouldn't have access to his partner's pension should something happen to him. Nor can they get married in California.

"In the next four years, do I think I can walk down the street holding the hand of my husband?" said the retired biochemist, now working as a chef. "I don't think so."

His partner, Scott McDonald, 57, was more optimistic. Between the president's endorsement of gay marriage and the reversal of "don't ask, don't tell," the retired Army officer said, "we've come a long way in the past 10 years."

He said he's especially grateful that the president's opponent did not win, because that would have put the country on a very different course. Instead of fighting reversals, the gay community can continue to push advancements, he said, because "there's still a lot of work that has to be done."

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-- Maria L. La Ganga, Adolfo Flores and Rick Rojas

Photo: Supporters of same-sex marriage demonstrate outside a San Francisco courthouse in 2011. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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