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Sullivan on Obama: The First Gay President


By Jacob Combs

Writing in this week’s Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan offers a powerful and engaging look at President Obama’s announcement of support for marriage equality, and argues that this president is better situated than any in our history to make such a historic and far-reaching move.  Sullivan’s first take on the announcement, written on the day of Obama’s ABC interview, said that Obama had “let go of fear,” and that he was putting himself on the right side of an issue as opposed to the politically expedient.  His Newsweek piece, though, is a must-read, a deeply nuanced and brilliantly contextual read of just what Obama’s decision means for the country and for the LGBT movement in general.

Looking back to 2007, before Obama’s election to the country’s highest office, Sullivan recalls the pre-candidate’s answer to a question posed to him by the mother of a gay man.  “I want full equality for your son,” Obama said, “all the rights and benefits that marriage brings.  But the word ‘marriage’ stirs up so much religious feeling.  I think civil unions are the way to go.”

In tracing Obama’s journey from this ‘separate but equal’ formulation to this week’s evolution to full equality, Sullivan covers some well-trodden ground: the need for campaign cash from all-important gay donors and bundlers, the benefits of including in his campaign an equality issue that would inspire and motivate young voters, the ever-increasing public support in favor of marriage equality.

But in taking a slow route to full equality, Sullivan argues, Obama may have outsmarted us all.  The marriage announcement, he says, is “an inevitable culmination of three years of work,” and a victory that the president accomplished “the way he always does: leading from behind and playing the long game.”   First came the end of the HIV travel ban, then Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, then the Justice Department’s determination that sexual orientation merited heightened scrutiny and then, finally, the marriage interview.  “In four years,” Sullivan writes, “Obama went from being JFK on civil rights to being LBJ…. And he did so by co-opting the forces of resistance.”

But it’s Sullivan’s final thesis, where he examines just how Obama’s own experience of personal growth and discovery of identity, that is the most extraordinary part of his essay.  Gays and lesbians, he writes, are for the most part born to straight parents and straight families.  Before they can tell anyone about their sexual orientation, and perhaps even before they know their own orientation, LGBT individuals live lives of displacements, experiencing, in his words, “something inchoate, a separateness from their peers, a subtle estrangement from their families.”

In a similar way, a young Barack Obama experienced these feelings growing up as he discovered the history of his racial background.  Raised by a white single mom and white grandparents, he had to discover the identity of his black heritage and reconcile that with the white family in which he lived.  Obama’s experience was like the gay experience, Sullivan writes, “the discovery in adulthood of a community not like your own home and the struggle to belong in both places, without displacement, without alienation.”

And that, indeed, is why the marriage issue matters.  It’s about creating a space for gays and lesbians, and their partners, and their families, and their children, that stands equivalent to the institution of heterosexual marriage that we know so well both in terms of legal rights and, yes, in name.  It’s about creating a new normal–or maybe, an expanded normal.

Check out the following segment of Andrew Sullivan discussing the Obama interview further on The Chris Matthews Show.


  • 1. Sagesse  |  May 14, 2012 at 8:45 am


  • 2. MJFargo  |  May 14, 2012 at 8:56 am

    For me, in all of it "heightened scrutiny" will be Obama's legacy. Whether or not the Supreme Court agrees we have yet to see; nevertheless, to finally have the protection of the law as opposed to having to plead for it, has been a great step forward.

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