Ryan Reyes, whose boyfriend Daniel Kaufman (pictured above, right) was killed in the San Bernardino terrorist attack last month, is among the two dozen guests invited by the White House to sit in the balcony at Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
He’ll be joined in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box by Jim Obergefell, the Cincinnati, Ohio man at the center of the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on marriage equality. Other guests include Airman Spencer Stone, one of the heroes on a French train who subdued a gunman during a violent rampage, a Syrian refugee, local and state leaders as well as the first woman to graduate from U.S. Army Ranger school.
Reyes told the Los Angeles Times this honor represents an opportunity for healing in the weeks since the tragedy that took the life of Kaufman and 13 others turned him into an ad-hoc activist against religious intolerance.
“If we ostracize people, they can’t help us,” Reyes told the Times. “If we embrace, we can all help each other. I’m hoping this can unify us as a nation.”
For the first time in Obama's presidency, one seat in the balcony will be unoccupied. The Times reported the seat will be left open in honor of Kaufman and the hundreds of other people killed by guns in 2015. In a statement, the White House touted President Obama’s announcement last week of “commonsense steps to help reduce gun violence in America and make our communities safer:”
“We leave one seat empty in the First Lady’s State of the Union Guest Box for the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice – because they need the rest of us to speak for them. To tell their stories. To honor their memory. To support the Americans whose lives have been forever changed by the terrible ripple effect of gun violence – survivors who’ve had to learn to live with a disability, or without the love of their life. To remind every single one of our representatives that it’s their responsibility to do something about this.”
White House officials tell the Times Obama will not focus on his crime agenda or other specific policies in his address. Rather, in this final national speech to convey his view of our nation, the Times reported the president hopes to encourage all Americans to see the nation and themselves with optimism, in 2016 and beyond his presidency.
Aides say part of the address will focus on a message of unity, and he hopes to inspire Americans to realize their shared potential.
Like Reyes, Obergefell is someone whose notoriety arose from tragedy. The White House called Obergefell ““an accidental activist, one who became entwined in a political statement larger than himself — a statement of equality and dignity that Americans have been fighting for since this nation’s founding. And he now remains committed to ensuring the civil rights for all Americans."
Obergefell lost his husband, John Arthur, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. In his final weeks, the state of Ohio refused to recognize their marriage in the state of Maryland as valid. They had been together 21 years.
So Obergefell and his husband decided to sue, and became the plaintiff in the landmark case, Obergefell v. Hodges, that challenged Ohio’s ban and ultimately legalized same-sex marriage.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reported Obergefell’s selection is a signal that Obama will likely refer to the fight for marriage equality in his speech.
According to the Times, the White House chose Reyes not for the tragedy in which his boyfriend saved four others, but what he has been saying on television and radio in the weeks since the San Bernardino shootings.
On December 2, Kaufman’s colleague, Syed Rizwan Farook, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire on a holiday party at the center for developmentally disabled adults where they worked, killing 14 people. Both Farook and Malik were themselves killed by police in pursuit. But it was almost a full day before Reyes finally learned of Kaufman's fate.
As he mourned, he grew alarmed at the anti-Muslim sentiment in the aftermath of the shootings, and spoke about it in appearances on local television and radio programs as well as the Dr. Phil show. His goal remains to share a message of tolerance.
“Right now we are extremely divided,” Reyes told the Times. “My best hope is that maybe we can all come together as a country.”
To read the full list of those invited by the White House to sit with First Lady Michelle Obama, click here.