Monday, May 14, 2012

Is Barack Obama the first gay President?

No! Why are we even asking this question?!

It's the fault of Newsweek, and an article written by Andrew Sullivan. Obama recently came out in support of marriage equality for same-sex couples. This is a good-- though not entirely unexpected-- thing. The US president has been slowly working to repeal legislation that discriminates against gay and lesbian Americans: the Obama administration no longer defends the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), for example, and Don't Ask, Don't Tell is no more. Marriage equality is a natural progression-- or evolution, if you prefer-- of these actions. It doesn't make Obama "the first gay President", however.

To my knowledge, Barack Obama has not come out as a gay or bisexual man. While I don't want to assume heterosexuality, I do think it's a safe conclusion to make, here. He seems to be very much in love with his wife, at any rate. Why, then, is Sullivan portraying Obama as the first gay President, when as far as anyone can tell, he doesn't fit the bill?

It's an allusion to a 1998 quote by Toni Morrison, referring to the possible impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton:
Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.
 Fortunately, Morrison was wrong about Clinton being "blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime", seeing as it was only 10 years later that Barack Obama was elected President. Morrison later went on to clarify what she meant by that phrase:
People misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.
How, exactly, is Obama's statement supporting marriage equality anything like Clinton's treatment in 1998? There's no comparison that can be made, here.

Sullivan tries to draw a comparison, though, by looking at Obama's childhood, as a black man being raised by a white mother and grandparents.  From the article:
The core gay experience throughout history has been displacement, a sense of belonging and yet not belonging. Gays are born mostly into heterosexual families and discover as they grow up that, for some reason, they will never be able to have a marriage like their parents’ or their siblings’. They know this before they can tell anyone else, even their parents. This sense of subtle alienation—of loving your own family while feeling excluded from it—is something all gay children learn.
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. 
There is something about this comparison that rubs me the wrong way. To me, it looks like Sullivan is grasping at straws in order to make the claim that Obama's experience as a black youth is similar to that of gay youth, when the reality is that they are two different things. Frankly, by calling Obama the "first gay President" and using his childhood upbringing to demonstrate how it's just like a gay child's upbringing (except in all the ways it's different) strikes me as trying to erase Obama's identity as a black President.

(Which is not to say that one can't be both a black and gay President; it's just that Obama is only one of those things, and it's not the thing Sullivan or Newsweek claims he is.)

 I like the way Renee Martin of Womanist Musings put it:
What Barack Obama did does not make him the gay president, anymore than Bill Clinton was the first Black president.  You don't take on the identity of a marginalized person simply be [sic] attempting to be an ally. Now, to be clear, I'm not pulling a no homo here, I am talking about the appropriation of a marginalized identity in order to give the appearance of being liberal, inclusive and tolerant. A straight man, cannot by definition be the gay president.  He can advocate for GLBT rights and in fact should do so, but I reject this appropriation. 

To be fair, it's not Obama appropriating a gay identity, here; it's others bestowing it on him. I suppose Obama could grab hold of this identity and use it to garner support form queer Americans (not unlike how Clinton supporters used Morrison's"first black president" comment), but I doubt that he will. While the President has been frustratingly slow in going public with his support for same-sex marriage, I think he has too much respect for the gay community to take on an appropriated identity.

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