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Four years ago, few voters outside Illinois knew who Barack Obama was, let alone imagined that a virtual newcomer like him could be poised to become the nation's first African-American president. Yet, today, Obama's historic and swift ascent toward the ultimate political prize now raises interest in another unprecedented scenario: When -- and under what circumstances -- might an openly gay person move into the Oval Office?
Roberta Achtenberg, former assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who in 1993 became the first openly gay person to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a cabinet-level position, has never truly entertained the possibility of a gay president -- until now. And the fact that "I'm allowing myself to do so tells me that something extraordinary had happened in the past few years," she says.
It's taken the perfect combination of trailblazing and unimaginably fertile political and cultural circumstances to help get Obama to where he is today. Certainly L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who 18 years ago became the country's first elected African-American governor, and public officials like former U.S. senator Carol Moseley Braun and secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice helped lay the path. That many people wanted Powell to run for the nation's highest office in 2000 also helped set the stage for an Obama presidency.
"You've got to demonstrate that you're a part of society and can work and perform just as well as anybody else," says Marisa Richmond, a historian and the first openly transgender African-American delegate to the Democratic National Convention. "[Obama] has made his advances based on the successes of others who've come before him."
There have already been plenty of gay political trailblazers. Since 1974, when Elaine Noble became the first openly gay candidate elected to public office (the Massachusetts house of representatives), the number of out politicians has steadily increased. According to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, 49 openly gay elected officials held office when the organization launched in May 1991; today, the group counts nearly 500. But there has yet to be a gay equivalent to Wilder, Braun, Powell, or Rice -- an openly gay candidate who has won or been appointed to one of those statewide or national positions that are the usual launching pads for the White House. That's one of several hurdles.
Another significant obstacle is the law. It's not illegal for a gay man or woman to be president. But can you envision a commander in chief who couldn't serve openly in the military? Or a president whose marriage isn't recognized by the federal government? So "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act will have to be overturned first. And count on needing passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act too. After all, who would want a president who, while at work in the White House, couldn't be guaranteed freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation?
Considering these difficulties, what are the chances of a leading gay presidential contender by 2016? Not very good, says Patrick Egan, assistant professor of politics at New York University. He points to a December Gallup poll in which only 56% of respondents said they would vote for a well-qualified candidate who happens to identify as "homosexual." That was only 10 points higher than the number of respondents who said they would support that perennial nonstarter in U.S. politics, the atheist. "Those numbers look like the numbers for electing a black president did 40 or 50 years ago," Egan says.
Yet as the Obama phenomenon attests, even the far-fetched can happen, particularly when a whole generation of voters turns a candidacy into a bona fide movement.
"I think the youth vote will be the biggest factor," says gay superdelegate Jason Rae, who at 21 is the youngest person ever elected to the Democratic National Committee. He estimates that it will be about 30 years -- when an older generation of voters will be replaced by younger ones -- before a gay or lesbian presidential candidate will be viable.
That any potential nominee ought to be brilliant and charismatic goes without saying. But when breaking the bias barrier, minority candidates must also reflect their minority status in a "nonthreatening" way.
"For good or for ill, I think the Ellen phenomenon has made the domesticated lesbian more palatable," says Lisa Moore, an associate professor of English and women's and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin. "I think it would be a partnered lesbian, probably someone with children."
In fact, most of those asked predicted that the likeliest candidate would be a woman. "I think that women have more successfully bridged the 'yuck gap' with the public than men," says Bob Witeck, CEO and cofounder of the Washington, D.C.-based marketing and PR firm Witeck-Combs Communications.
Still, there are some who discount the likelihood of a lesbian, particularly in the wake of sexism they say was on display in the recent primary season. "A lesbian candidate would have a double whammy," says Holly Hughes, associate professor of art and theater at the University of Michigan. She envisions the ideal candidate as a man who benefited from the gay rights struggle but did not forge his identity in it, in the manner that Obama, born in 1961, connects with the civil rights movement: "It would have to be someone who, in that particular elocution, 'happened' to be gay."
Obama's success suggests that the optimal scenario for a gay candidate might ultimately require a convergence of factors that the candidate has no control over. For instance, would Obama's image of change be so appealing on the tail end of eight years of national prosperity and peace? "I'm not sure if [Obama] shows us a new way of becoming president so much as he is an exceptional personality, with an exceptional biography, in an exceptional time," says Jonathan Rauch, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. In other words, the perfect candidate with the perfect biography might be out there already -- it's just a matter of finding the perfect time. "By the time we're ready to consider a gay president," Rauch explains, "gay rights will have to have almost ceased being controversial in America."
Come to think of it, that does sound like the perfect time.
HAIL TO THE CHIEF Who needs primaries? We conducted an informal poll of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, and political insiders to bring you this list of likely, and surprising, LGBT contenders for the White House -- for the next 24 years.
The Most Likely
2016David Cicilline, 47, mayor of Providence, R.I., and president of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors
Barney Frank, 68, U.S. representative from Massachusetts
Anthony D. Romero, 43, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union
Elizabeth Birch, 52, consultant; former Human Rights Campaign executive director
2024Tammy Baldwin, 46, U.S. representative from Wisconsin
Hilary Rosen, 49, political director of The Huffington Post
Kate Brown, 48, Oregon state senator
Matt McCoy, 42, Iowa state senator
Christine Quinn, 42, speaker of the New York City Council
2032Guy Padgett, 31, former mayor of Casper, Wyo., and current city council member
Rachel Maddow, 35, MSNBC political analyst and Air America Radio host
Jamie Pedersen, 39, Washington State representative
Jason Rae, 21, DNC superdelegate from Wisconsin
Elizabeth Duthinh, 17, freshman at Brown University; helped lobby to pass Maryland's safe-schools law
Michael Tuso, 19, University of North Carolina at Greensboro freshman; first openly gay student body president in the UNC system
2016David Geffen, 65, media mogul
David C. Bohnett, 52, technology entrepreneur
Tim Gill, 54, software entrepreneur and gay rights activist
Suze Orman, 57, financial adviser
2024Greg Louganis, 48, Olympic gold medal diver and motivational speaker
Michael Stipe, 48, lead vocalist of R.E.M. and activist
2032Patrick Guerriero, 40, executive director of Gill Action Fund; former head of Log Cabin Republicans
Dan Savage, 43, syndicated sex columnist