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Obama’s Big Gay Journey

Jim Burroway

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.



May 14th, 2012 | LINK

Well said, and I love this post. But I must take issue with Newsweek’s glibness, and ask readers PLEASE to do some research on President James Buchanan, who was most likely the first gay U.S. President. Nor was he in the closet…he lived with Senator Rufus King, whom Andrew Johnson derided as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy”, for fifteen years before becoming President. The two of them were widely considered a couple in Washington D.C. circles, and King was often referred to as Buchanan’s ‘wife’.

May 14th, 2012 | LINK

MJC, thanks for that information on Pres Buchanan, I’ll go check it out.

I don’t know why after reading your article these words popped into my mind, “You have nothing to fear, except fear itself.” I can’t figure out why those words came to me like they did.

Michael barber
May 14th, 2012 | LINK

Excellent,I hope that it is published Widely!!

May 14th, 2012 | LINK

To be sure, Toni Morrison was not at all comfortable with the way the “Black President” title was bandied about. She felt most missed the point she was trying to make, that is, that Bill Clinton, who grew up poor and in a single parent home, was being treated like a black person (guilty until proven innocent) during the Lewinsky sex scandal. Nonetheless, many took the “black president” comment as a positive and treated it as such.

I, too, am not happy about the “gay president” bit, for many of the reasons you’ve stated.

Gene in L.A.
May 14th, 2012 | LINK

I agree with those who’ve expressed discomfort with the “first gay president” rhetoric. The main problem is that there are some who believe that only gay people support gay rights; and those people now feel justified in their beliefs. A gay man is telling them Obama is a gay president, and that’s enough for them. His announcement will undoubtedly get him some votes, but it will lose him some too.

May 14th, 2012 | LINK

It’s interesting that Andrew Sullivan and Tina Bro(Newsweek’s editor) are both British-born American citizens. So, to a point, I can forgive the error. And, clearly, not many know about President Buchanan (or Lincoln sleeping with a soldier). But I think it’s always important to dispel mythology.

By the way, shouldn’t there be an ad, if even a comical one, featuring Romney saying “marriage has always been between a man and a woman…and a woman…and a woman…and a woman…”

Timothy Kincaid
May 14th, 2012 | LINK

Wait! It was Toni Morrison who came up with that title for Clinton?!?

Yikes. But it makes sense now.

The lovely Ms. Morrison is, shall I put it mildly, somewhat detached from reality. Okay, a long what detached. (I happened to know details and behind the scenes about a little social drama in which she lost her groove. Not a nice woman. Not a sane woman.)

May 14th, 2012 | LINK

Tina Brown was responsible for the cover and the title.
Sullivan’s article (and I do not like him) was excellent.
Timothy Kincaid’s tantalizing scuttle-butt about Toni Morrison is irrelevant, but I’m glad he’s back to agent provocateur mode.

May 15th, 2012 | LINK

On a sidenote: I have never understood why people who have one black parent and one white parent are called black. They are as much white as they are black.

May 15th, 2012 | LINK

Race is a social construct, not a genetic reality. In places like Apartheid South Africa, Pres. Obama would not be considered black, he’d be “colored.” In other cultures, he’d be “mulatto.” Any white blood is seen as a positive lifting you out of blackness.

But in America, culturally, we have had a tradition of the “one drop rule.” If you’re at all “black,” then you’re black. Blackness taints your whiteness. Obama in particular “looks black,” and therefore it was probably inescapable that he be identified as such by society, even if he is biracial. Look at Tiger Woods; his Thai mother is standing *right there* but he still gets called “black” all the time, in spite of his protestations that he’s multiracial.

Or to put it another way, race is a stupid thing Western society made up and don’t apply in a reasonable fashion.

Old Skooler
May 15th, 2012 | LINK

Why did Obama have to evolve his views? To me as a gay person I find that more offensive! Why did his views have to “evolve”? Weren’t gays evolved enough to support them without having to flip-flop on the issue from 2004 until 2008 and back again in 2012? Obama cannot be taken seriously. Intellectual gay people see his heartless charade for what it is.

Old Skooler
May 15th, 2012 | LINK

Humanity is not affirmed! And if you’re in need of it being affirmed you need to get something or someone meaningful in your life ASAP! Presidents affirm positons, not people. As much as you would like to hype or believe otherwise the facts state the opposite. Being drunk on gay is not an excuse for such over-reach.

Timothy Kincaid
May 15th, 2012 | LINK


Race is a funny thing.

I was watching Dancing with the Stars (I finally got around to last week’s episode last night) and the show played up that the grandmothers of Disney actor Roshon Fegan. On is African-American and the other Filipina, but both were of the age where features were less distinct and had grandma-colored skin, that light tan hue that seems to be the color that so many ethnicities, pale to dark, eventually settle on.

We place so much importance on race. But here were two women – one Black, one Asian – and I had no idea what their race was and clearly it didn’t much matter to them that night either.

All I could think was that one of the grandmas looked like she belonged in my family and I kept trying to figure out who she reminds me of. I’ve kinda settled on my great-grandmother, but she died when I was very young and I only have one picture of her so that seems to be a stretch.

Priya Lynn
May 15th, 2012 | LINK

Old Skooler, I agree Obama flip-flopped on marriage equality and while on one hand that’s disappointing on the other hand if one is going to get elected a certain amount of that is pretty much required. In looking back I’d see LGBT Americans are the better for having Obaman flip flop and get elected than they would have been if he hadn’t and hadn’t been elected. So you can be angry and call Obama heartless if you want, but I don’t see it that way and I certainly don’t blame anyone else for being happy about Obama’s “evolution” – all in all, its been a good thing.

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