The Washington Post

Calling Obama the first gay president seems about right

There’s been a lot of reaction to the Newsweek cover dubbing President Obama “The First Gay President.” Some of it has been bizarre. Some of it lacks any kind of sense of history or a sense of humor.

The moment I saw the cover and read the headline I instantly knew the rhetorical game being played. As The Post’s Felicia Sonmez correctly noted, it is a riff on Toni Morrison’s 1998 declaration that President Clinton was “the first black president” of the United States. Sullivan’s long essay touting Obama’s historic stance on same-sex marriage is anchored in his belief that the president’s experience as a biracial son of America imbued him with a deep understanding of the struggle for acceptance and dignity faced by gay men and lesbians. In her piece on Clinton, Morrison linked his impeachment to the experience faced by many black men.

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....The message was clear “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.”

African Americans loved having that rhetorical connection to Clinton, especially since the notion of an actual black president seemed a distant dream. And it was one the president relished. At my first-ever dinner at the White House in 1999, my ex Giuseppe blurted out in his excitement and to my embarrassment, “You’re the first black president!” To which Clinton replied with his trademark grin, “That’s what Toni Morrison said. My grandfather would be proud.”

This is the connection that gay men and lesbians will now have with the straight and married Obama. He has done a lot to bring a measure of fairness and dignity to their lives. But sometimes what’s more important than a program, regulation or law is the public acknowledgment by your president that you and your family exist and that the goal you hold most dear is one he shares. Being called the first gay president — even if it is to shock and sell magazines — seems about right.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.


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