OK, folks, let’s come back down to Earth, lest we give credence to the old “light in the loafers” expression: President Obama is a lot of things, but he is not the first gay president.
I realize that this was decreed by Newsweek, and far be it from me to take such decrees lightly. I, too, was among those pointing to the president’s great leadership last week, writing that he liberated himself and many others by coming out of the closet on marriage equality. But honestly, the “first gay president” label just doesn’t work, no matter what rhetorical device you employ. And it makes us gays seem silly and starved for validation.
First off, as historian James Loewen noted this week, over a century ago James Buchanan was likely our first gay president, having lived with a man who was arguably our first gay vice president, Rufus King. And evidence suggests that it was a veritable gay era in the White House, as the president who followed Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, was likely our second homosexual president, a reality that was seen as just plain crazy when it was first extensively documented in 2005, but which more and more serious historians are now embracing.
And the playwright and activist Larry Kramer, who was among those pushing academia and media to rethink Lincoln’s sexual orientation, has long been working on a 4,000-page book, The American People, which will be published in two-parts. In it he will drop an even bigger bomb: He says that the father of our country himself, George Washington, was actually our first gay president — or, as he told me on my radio program last year, “a big queen.” I’m sure you can’t wait for the firestorm that one is going to create.
But all that aside, even if you accept Toni Morrison’s premise that Bill Clinton was “the first black president,” which of course Andrew Sullivan is working off of in his essay in Newsweek, it just falls flat when applied to Obama and gays.
Bill Clinton grew up poor and among the African-American community, including in the churches in which he worshiped. He had a genuine connection with blacks and with African-American culture, music, and and history. Morrison notes that the impeachment was a defining moment of degradation, something many African-American men have experienced in a society where racism still runs deep. (It’s also important to point out that the title of Morrison’s piece is “Bill Clinton As the First Black President”; the word “as” creates a subtle but important distinction.)
Barack Obama didn’t grow up immersed in gay culture or understanding the gay experience, and he had no such connection to the gay community, a constituency within the Democratic Party that is loyal and raises lots of money. For almost four years the president, for political reasons, didn’t say he was for marriage equality. Then, after being pressured by gays, and after many in his own administration couldn’t hold back their own support for marriage equality, the president announced his support in the midst of an election campaign.
The president still qualifies his support, arguing that marriage is a state issue rather than a federal right, leading one prominent civil rights icon, Rep. James Clyburn, to criticize him. And the president still hasn’t signed the executive order that would give LGBT people who work for federal contractors protections from employment discrimination.
Now, I’m certainly not one of those who claimed that the president’s coming out for marriage equality was not valid because it was “cynical” politics. Gays should be so lucky to have politicians cynically pushing for our rights. The president did a great thing, and I salute him for it. But I don’t see him as having any greater connection with the gay community than a great many other heterosexual Americans. Yet I do see Bill Clinton as having a greater connection with the black community than most white Americans.
As Glenn Greenwald notes, Andrew Sullivan spent months ridiculing those of us who were pressuring the president on marriage, claiming we were “desperate” and “sad,” seeking “affirmation,” something that he said wasn’t necessary for him. And then, what does he do when the president comes out for marriage equality? He gets all weepy on live television and writes a piece about Obama being the first gay president. Who was really seeking validation?
Let’s give the president immense credit for coming out for marriage equality. But let’s leave the “gay president” label to those of the past who actually may be shown to have been homosexual — yes, even if means eventually claiming Richard Nixon — and to the first openly gay president of the future.
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