He’s biracial. He grew up in a broken home. And he worked his way through an ivy league education. These are some of the reasons gay writer Andrew Sullivan has coined Barack Obama as America’s “first gay president” in a new cover story essay in Newsweek. Borrowing from an essay Toni Morrison had written in the late 90s about Bill Clinton – calling him the first “black president” – the comparison stops there, though the irony isn’t lost on the fact that Obama is truly America’s first black president. And though Sullivan has been a critic of President Obama ever since he first took office, many of the latest LGBT-friendly initiatives coming from his administration seem to have softened the gay blogger.
“When you step back a little and assess the record of Obama on gay rights, you see, in fact, that this was not an aberration. It was an inevitable culmination of three years of work,” writes Sullivan. “He did this the way he always does: leading from behind and playing the long game.”
And while we might have expected Sullivan to call on the president to not only endorse gay marriage, as he did last week – but to also take the next legislative step – he seems to suggest there’s more where that came from based on Obama’s slow and steady strategies. Sullivan notes the “psychological” implications of the president saying he supports marriage equality in an election year is particularly great for the future of the LGBT community, as he’s the first sitting president to actually do so (a fact easily overlooked). To the writer, Obama’s own personal history – one wrought with a certain amount of disenfranchising and racial ambiguity – gives him a sense of “belonging and yet not belonging,” something Sullivan says the gay community knows all too well.
“Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet,” writes Sullivan. “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.”
He says these distinctions have readied him to be an ally to the LGBT community that often suffers alienation and displacement because of something, too, that’s inherently unchangeable. “Obama learned to be black the way gays learn to be gay,” he writes. “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.”
What do you think? Is Obama really one of the greatest LGBT allies? Or is Sullivan giving the president a little too much credit too soon?