Hope and History
BY Michael Joseph Gross
April 26 2010 2:00 PM ET
This article originally ran in the September, 2009 issue of The Advocate.
He looked like a hero, and that was the problem. Barack Obama seemed almost reckless with the truth, implausibly idealistic -- and (though we might not have said this out loud) we worried that America wasn’t “ready for a black president.”
After eight years of George W. Bush, we were sick of being excluded, sick of being hated. Hillary Clinton seemed the safer choice. We knew that she knew how power worked, and we wanted someone who could win. Moreover, many gay leaders -- the men and women with money and influence, whose success was built on cunning -- looked at her and saw themselves: making her way by wile, unafraid to sacrifice integrity when the game demands it.
But truth will out, and many placed their bets on Barack Obama, and when he took the lead in the primaries, he won over most of the rest. He talked to us -- and about us -- more, and more explicitly, than any nominee before him. And not just when he had to. Not just at Human Rights Campaign dinners. At black churches, in his stump speech, on the night he was elected: He said the word that every major candidate before him had found every excuse not to say. He named us. He said gay.
After his election Obama named someone else. The world’s most influential Protestant minister, Rick Warren, who campaigned against gay marriage, was asked to give the inauguration’s invocation. Obama tried to quell outrage and concern by restating his commitment to be “a fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans.” And during his first months in office, while he worked with Congress on the economic stimulus package and the wars, and laid groundwork for legislation to protect the environment and reform health care, we were on our best behavior, waiting for him to reveal his plans to keep his promises to us.
Momentum for gay equality kept building -- in the courts, in legislatures, and in culture. Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine legalized gay marriage -- which was, significantly, also endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Dick Cheney too announced his support for marriage equality, as did top Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s presidential campaign. Polls showed clear majorities supporting repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” even among conservatives and churchgoers -- constituencies that had long been in favor of the antigay military policy. Still, through all of this, one word was conspicuously absent from the president’s vocabulary.
The hero was a player after all.