By Julie Bolcer
Originally published on Advocate.com May 14 2012 10:03 AM ET
Andrew Sullivan hails President Barack Obama as “the first gay president” in a new essay for Newsweek that lauds his support for marriage equality. The gay blogger argues that the president’s identity as a biracial man has helped him identity with the “sense of belonging and yet not belonging” that defines the gay experience.
In the essay, Sullivan readily acknowledges that he was a vocal critic of Obama, having dismissed the approach of the Obama administration as the “fierce urgency of whenever.” The president’s announcement last week appears to have changed Sullivan’s perspective, however, and he now argues that the country has seen “an astonishing pace of change in one presidential term.”
“But when you step back a little and assess the record of Obama on gay rights, you see, in fact, that this was not an aberration. It was an inevitable culmination of three years of work,” writes Sullivan. “He did this the way he always does: leading from behind and playing the long game.”
Sullivan said that he was “utterly unprepared for how psychologically transformative the moment would be.” He said that he cried as he watched the interview with ABC News. But upon reflection, Sullivan believes that the announcement should not be surprising, because the president and the gay community share a bond of “displacement, a sense of belonging and yet not belonging.”
“Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet,” writes Sullivan. “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.
“This is the gay experience: the discovery in adulthood of a community not like your own home and the struggle to belong in both places, without displacement, without alienation,” he continues. “It is easier today than ever. But it is never truly without emotional scar tissue. Obama learned to be black the way gays learn to be gay. And in Obama’s marriage to a professional, determined, charismatic black woman, he created a kind of family he never had before, without ever leaving his real family behind. He did the hard work of integration and managed to create a space in America for people who did not have the space to be themselves before. And then as president, he constitutionally represented us all.”
Sullivan’s piece recalls the Toni Morrison essay from 1998 in The New Yorker, where she made a case for Bill Clinton as “the first black president.” She wrote that “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.”
Newsweek also has drawn attention for the cover that accompanies the essay. Comments through social media have compared the rainbow halo image of President Obama with the rainbow-columned White House on the cover of The New Yorker this week.