So beyond Newsweek getting buzz for turning President Obama into a big gay angel on its cover, what did writer Andrew Sullivan actually have to say about our "First Gay President"?
First of all, let’s give Newsweek credit for cleansing America’s palate of the curdled flavor of a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old on the cover of Time. Presenting a man who reserves the right to execute civilians in drone strikes and whose administration is callously invading and shutting down legal medical marijuana dispensaries with a halo is repulsive in its own way, though. (Sullivan might grudgingly agree; he has criticized the administration in these areas)
Like a lot of Sullivan’s writing on gay issues and especially gay marriage, the essay is very much bound by his own feelings and experiences on the matter. It’s written in first person, with occasional drifting into the royal “we” as he speaks on behalf of the gay experience. That generalization can be chafing to a gay man or woman with different experiences and priorities than Sullivan’s. His need for affirmation and approval from authority figures is on naked display. As a result, Sullivan strives to acknowledge Obama’s political calculations while also absolving him of having had to make them.
He writes of first meeting Obama at a fundraiser in 2007 and hearing him support civil unions over marriage for religious reasons:
Was this obviously humane African-American actually advocating a “separate but equal” solution — a form of marital segregation like the one that made his own parents’ marriage a felony in many states when he was born? Hadn’t he already declared he supported marriage equality when he was running for the Illinois Senate in 1996? (The administration now claims that the questionnaire from the gay Chicago paper Outlines had been answered in type — not Obama’s writing — by somebody else.) Hadn’t Jeremiah Wright’s church actually been a rare supporter of marriage equality among black churches? The sudden equivocation made no sense—except as pure political calculation. And yet it also felt strained, as if he knew it didn’t quite fit. He wanted equality but not marriage — but you cannot have one without the other. On this issue, Obama’s excruciating nonposition was essentially “Yes we can’t.” And yet somehow, simply by the way he answered that mother’s question, I didn’t believe it. I thought he was struggling between political calculation and his core belief in civil rights. And it was then that I realized he was both: a cold, steely, ruthless, calculating politician who nonetheless wanted to do the right thing in the end.
Obama was “obviously humane.” He opposed gay marriage, but somehow, Sullivan knew Obama didn’t really mean it. Somehow, in the way he answered the question. He knew it in his gut.
On the criticism from gay activists of Obama’s slow pace of dismantling Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and resisting the Defense of Marriage Act, Sullivan nearly apologizes on behalf of the gay community:
He fooled most of us much of the time, our outbursts often intemperate — I went on CNN at one point to say that the president had betrayed the gay community on the military ban. We snarked about the “fierce urgency of whenever.” Our anger built. And sometimes I wonder if he goaded us into “making him do it.” If he did, it worked.
It’s almost as though Sullivan thinks there’s something unique or special about the president waiting until the polls were going the right way before he took action and not political business as usual. Obama was “leading from behind,” Sullivan explains at one point. Somehow Obama gets credit for the increase in volume surrounding gay activism on the marriage and military front. By doing nothing, the president made gay activists do the leg work. And thus he gets the praise. It’s almost zen.
If Obama’s poll-driven tactics feel different to Sullivan it’s because he has crafted the story around himself and his own experiences. He identifies as a conservative Catholic with an eye on a very particular family dynamic he needs to preserve and adapt to his own purposes. Like many desires, this one is not universal, and attempting to make it so leads to strange projections:
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.
Given how my parents’ and sibling’s marriages ended I certainly hope I don’t have one like theirs. Sullivan is creating a narrative in which gay youths feel alienated from a Disney-compliant vision of dream weddings and nuclear families. Fears of exclusion, abandonment, humiliation and even violence can contribute to that subtle alienation. But lack of marriage? Really?
He then pivots to the argument that Obama is “just like us”; he had to come out of the closet as a black man in a white family:
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.
Yeah, thanks for perpetuating that stereotype about gay men and their dads, Sullivan. He concludes that Obama “learned” to be black the same way that gays “learn” to be gay, thus explaining the attention-grabbing headline.
But even the idea of “learning to be gay” is getting old-fashioned, and it’s a little odd for Sullivan to be invoking it given his blog's periodic chafing at the gay establishment. In his need to make Obama “one of us,” he has nearly gone collectivist. The gay community, to the extent one exists, has fractured and diversified significantly since the days of Harvey Milk, and we’re all the better for it. The shift in attitudes toward gay Americans by the public (and Obama) reflects people’s real experiences with gay people, not a belated pat of approval from the political class.