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Topics In the News
Andrew Sullivan: Barack Obama, America's First Gay President
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 05/14/12
Last updated on: 05/14/12
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Andrew Sullivan.

In his remarkable Newsweek article on President Obama's historic statement in favor of marriage equality, Andrew Sullivan traces Obama's evolution from supporter of civil unions to endorser of full-fledged equality. Echoing Toni Morrison's famous description of President Clinton as America's first Black President, Sullivan describes Obama as "America's First Gay President."

Sullivan's essay is an important analysis that deserves very wide reading. Although one might question particular assertions and even its principal thesis, Sullivan's essay is a fascinating work that combines personal revelation, sharp political acumen, and a provocative conclusion.

Sullivan describes his own personal reaction to the President's announcement that he now supports marriage equality. He begins this section by reminding us that "The interview, by coincidence, came the day after North Carolina voted emphatically to ban all rights for gay couples in the state constitution. For gay Americans and their families, the emotional darkness of Tuesday night became a canvas on which Obama could paint a widening dawn."

"But I didn't expect it," Sullivan continues. "Like many others, I braced myself for disappointment. And yet when I watched the interview, the tears came flooding down. The moment reminded me of my own wedding day. I had figured it out in my head, but not my heart. And I was utterly unprepared for how psychologically transformative the moment would be. To have the president of the United States affirm my humanity--and the humanity of all gay Americans--was, unexpectedly, a watershed."

Sullivan here captures the complexity of the gay community's relationship with the President, a man many of us supported with great passion and hope, but who has alternately disappointed and delighted us, to the point, indeed, of making us wary of expecting too much. Many of us were as moved as Sullivan by the President's affirmation of our humanity in what we immediately recognized as a historic moment.

He continues by rehearsing how the President finally became our fierce advocate in the second half of his term and speculating on the political calculations and consequences of the decision to endorse marriage equality.

But most compellingly, Sullivan makes a case for the similarity between Obama's personal history and the gay and lesbian experience.

He points out that "The core gay experience throughout history has been displacement, a sense of belonging and yet not belonging. Gays are born mostly into heterosexual families and discover as they grow up that, for some reason, they will never be able to have a marriage like their parents' or their siblings'. They know this before they can tell anyone else, even their parents. This sense of subtle alienation--of loving your own family while feeling excluded from it--is something all gay children learn."

He argues that Obama's own experience is similar to the "insider outsider" experience that most glbtq people live. "He was a black kid brought up by white grandparents and a white single mother in Hawaii and Indonesia, where his color really made no difference. He discovered his otherness when reading an old issue of Life magazine, which had a feature on African-Americans who had undergone an irreversible bleaching treatment to make them look white--because they believed being white was the only way to be happy."

"This is 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. 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."

"I have always sensed that [Obama] intuitively understands gays and our predicament--because it so mirrors his own. And he knows how the love and sacrifice of marriage can heal, integrate, and rebuild a soul. The point of the gay-rights movement, after all, is not about helping people be gay. It is about creating the space for people to be themselves. This has been Obama's life's work. And he just enlarged the space in this world for so many others, trapped in different cages of identity, yearning to be released and returned to the families they love and the dignity they deserve."

In the video below, Sullivan explains to Chris Matthews the complex emotions he felt in hearing Obama's endorsement of marriage equality.

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