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Collective Memory: President Obama’s State of the Union Address

By Alyssa Shapiro

Part of celebrating Pride is remembering the progress that’s been made. Here are the collective memories of Harper Watters, River Gallo, Eva Reign, Jared Egusa, and Caleb Boyles—each of whom collaborated with Youth To The People for our With Pride campaign—from President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union, when he became the first American president to advocate for the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people at a SOTU.

President Obama’s State of the Union Address

What was your life like when you learned about this? 

“I was 23 and I was just promoted to a demi soloist in the Houston Ballet. When you join a ballet company, you typically spend the first few years in the corp. In order to move up and out of the corp, it’s not just about physical talent; you have to find ways of differentiating yourself and standing out. Hearing Obama use the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender played a huge part in my promotion because I began accepting myself and finding the confidence to dance as myself—and not try and fit into a certain mold.” — Harper Watters, soloist with the Houston Ballet

“I was 18 and a freshman in college in the middle of Missouri. I was in the middle of reading Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, a memoir detailing her life as a trans woman. This book shook me to my core for many reasons, but mostly because I was trying to decide when was the ‘right’ time to start my transition.” — Eva Reign, artist, actress, writer

“I was 25 at the time and living in a small, overpriced studio apartment in the Valley equipped with a Murphy bed–the novelty of which lasted about as long as my ability to afford rent. That was a time of huge political disenfranchisement for me, and I think internally I rejected anything that came out of the establishment. Prioritizing being ‘seen’ in this light was not big on my to-do list. News like this often flew over my head.” — Jared Egusa, artist

How did you celebrate, if you did?

“My career as a dancer, advocate, proud Beyhive member. All my accolades are how I celebrated.” — Harper Watters

“I don’t think I did at the time, but I want to buy a vegan cheesecake now and retroactively celebrate.” — River Gallo, filmmaker

What impact did this speech have on you?

“I felt valued. I felt supported. I started dancing my best when I knew I had permission to be the best version of myself. January 20th is my mom’s birthday and January 16th is when the speech was given. I remember my mom calling me, saying he had given her the best early birthday present because she loved me so much and knew what an impact it would have on my growth and life.” — Harper Watters

“At the time, I did not know how important this actually was. On a personal level, I was quietly trying to figure out what being queer meant to me, and how I would be able to live my life truthfully and outwardly. I felt inspired by having a president acknowledge queer people, but I had little knowledge on the history of LGBTQIA+ people in the U.S. and how important it was to the queer community as a whole to be acknowledged this way.” — Caleb Boyles, illustrator

“I felt a glimmer of hope. I still hadn’t come out then.” — River Gallo

“I remember feeling shocked that President Obama was the first to say these words. I realized that I had to lot to learn, so I started learning more about my trans and queer history.” — Eva Reign

“It had always been important for me to not feel defined by a single facet, be it my heritage, my sexuality, my gender, my occupation. I always felt the multitude of contradictions within myself. I am both independent and dependent, joyous and sad, masculine and feminine, generous and self-serving, Japanese and American. I always felt limited by peoples’ need to have us fit into pre-ordained categories when most of us stretch across the board.” — Jared Egusa

Did it galvanize you to make change or take action?

“It changed how I approached my work and ultimately my take on life. I think up until that point, when I stepped into the studio or even certain public places, I would turn the volume down on ‘Harper’ to like a five. Obama’s words made me ramp up the volume to a 10 at all times. Unapologetic and unashamed. I infused more of myself into my work which made my work more honest and genuine. I was promoted a year later to soloist.” — Harper Watters

“I ended up coming out [to my parents] later that year.” — River Gallo

“Since then, I have been involved in a lot of activism and media advocacy having worked at my university in diversity roles, working with GLAAD as a Campus Ambassador, writing at Them., and currently working at the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.” — Eva Reign

What, if anything, has stayed with you about this event? How has time changed your perspective?

“We’ve taken an unnecessary step back in how we view the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. The progressiveness of his statement perhaps unveiled a dark reality in the opinions of many people, which is probably why we’re in such a divisive state right now. But remembering that moment gives me hope and reignites a certain drive—the same drive I had to be a better dancer and person.” — Harper Watters

“Looking back on this moment of history, I wish I could have felt as connected to the importance of his acknowledgement as I do now.” — Caleb Boyles

“I wonder if, in part, I tuned out the news because it bothered me. Why had it taken so long for gay people to be seen as worthy of protecting? Why do women still have to march for the right to their own body? Why does Flint, Michigan still not have access to clean water? There are things that seem so basic and rudimentary to me that, when people on the collective scale seem unable to agree, I detach maybe to salve that bitter disappointment. I’m not saying that’s the appropriate reaction, but I am saying we as a whole need to do better. This was definitely a step in the right direction.” — Jared Egusa

“At the time, I guess it was huge and now in this administration, [it] feels like worlds away.” — River Gallo

President Obama made many great strides at the national level for LGBTQ rights. There is so much more that could have been done and still needs to occur before we truly feel safe and equal.” — Eva Reign