Obama’s Big Gay Journey
May 14th, 2012
Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover story about President Barack Obama’s historic announcement last week that he supports the right of same-sex couples to marry is now online.
The cover and Sullivan’s op-ed bestows the title “The First Gay President” on Obama. This, of course, is in reference to the phrase coined by writer Toni Morrison who bestowed the title, “The First Black President” on President Bill Clinton during the impeachment proceedings in 1998. Despite Morrison being an African-American herself, I’ve always had qualms about the title. But now that Andrew Sullivan, gay himself, has bestowed the honor of “The First Gay President” on the real First Black President, I’m doubly pained. I’d rather wait until, you know, we actually get a real gay President. Someday.
But let’s not allow us to be distracted from the truly historic occasion. For the first time in American history, a sitting President supports the rights of gay Americans to marry the person they love. As Sullivan put it, “To have the president of the United States affirm my humanity—and the humanity of all gay Americans—was, unexpectedly, a watershed. He shifted the mainstream in one interview.” Sullivan then gets to the heart of why he thinks Obama deserves the title “The First Gay President” when he argues that Obama’s own personal odyssey is familiar to everyone in the LGBT community:
Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet. He had to discover his black identity and then reconcile it with his white family, just as gays discover their homosexual identity and then have to reconcile it with their heterosexual family. The America he grew up in had no space for a boy like him: black yet enveloped by loving whiteness, estranged from a father he longed for (another common gay experience), hurtling between being a Barry and a Barack, needing an American racial identity as he grew older but chafing also against it and over-embracing it at times.
I have always sensed that he intuitively understands gays and our predicament—because it so mirrors his own. And he knows how the love and sacrifice of marriage can heal, integrate, and rebuild a soul. The point of the gay-rights movement, after all, is not about helping people be gay. It is about creating the space for people to be themselves. This has been Obama’s life’s work. And he just enlarged the space in this world for so many others, trapped in different cages of identity, yearning to be released and returned to the families they love and the dignity they deserve.
This is the gay experience: the discovery in adulthood of a community not like your own home and the struggle to belong in both places, without displacement, without alienation. It is easier today than ever. But it is never truly without emotional scar tissue. Obama learned to be black the way gays learn to be gay. And in Obama’s marriage to a professional, determined, charismatic black woman, he created a kind of family he never had before, without ever leaving his real family behind. He did the hard work of integration and managed to create a space in America for people who did not have the space to be themselves before. And then as president, he constitutionally represented us all.