Andrew Sullivan Calls Obama the 'First Gay President'

5.14.2012

By Jerry Portwood

He explains why Obama’s 'Gay Awakening,' shouldn't be a surprise since his life as a biracial man has deep ties to the gay experience.

The writer, thinker, bold provocateur remains our most public intellectual in many respects (he's at No. 28 on Out's Power List). And now the essay you've been waiting for since Obama's support of marriage equality is finally here: The Daily Beast has published an essay by Andrew Sullivan, which is also the cover of Newsweek,  headlined, "The First Gay President." The cover depicts Obama with a rainbow-colored halo, which means we're back in 2008 territory with everyone scrambling to get a suitable Obama-deific cover? (We can only assume editrix Tina Brown pushed for that Clintonian reference, which harkens to Toni Morrison's 1998 proclamation, when Bill was considered our "first black president.")

In the story, Sullivan explains how Obama had been planning for some time to tell the American public of his support for same-sex marriage, but he had to rush things when Biden spoke first. The most eloquent and moving passage comes near the end, and I've quoted it at length below. And it reverberates with something I myself have grappled with: the feeling of being an immigrant in one's own culture and community. It's that immigrant experience that I often try to capture in my own work at Out, and it's something that we do share with our president. It took someone like Sullivan to get it down in a few paragraphs that will be remembered for their profundity when we look back on this year and this extraordinary change in the leadership of the United States. 

As Sullivan writes:

"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. They sense something inchoate, a separateness from their peers, a subtle estrangement from their families, the first sharp pangs of shame. And then, at some point, they find out what it all means. In the past, they often would retreat and withdraw, holding a secret they couldn’t even share with their parents—living as an insider outsider.

"And this, in a different way, is Obama’s life story as well. He was a black kid brought up by white grandparents and a white single mother in Hawaii and Indonesia, where his color really made no difference. He discovered his otherness when reading an old issue of Life magazine, which had a feature on African-Americans who had undergone an irreversible bleaching treatment to make them look white—because they believed being white was the only way to be happy. He wrote:

"I felt my face and neck get hot. My stomach knotted; the type began to blur on the page ... I had a desperate urge to jump out of my seat, to show [others] what I had learned, to demand some explanation or assurance. But something held me back. As in a dream, I had no voice for my newfound fear. By the time my mother came to take me home, my face wore a smile and the magazines were back in their proper place. The room, the air, was quiet as before.

"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..."

Read the essay in its entirety here.

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