Obama, Gay Marriage and America One Week Later

Obama’s recent announcement that he personally supports the right of same-sex couples to marry has made waves to a degree that little else from his term has, as historic as his presidency already was. This week, both Newsweek and The New Yorker have devoted their covers to commemorating the President’s declaration. The New Yorker‘s, fairly tame, depicts a version of the White House with rainbow columns out front, which the cover artist Bob Staake describes as a way to “celebrate the bravery of the President’s statement—a statement long ovedue—but all the more appreciated in this political year.” Newsweek‘s cover, on the other hand, is more controversial: a portrait of Obama with a rainbow-patterned halo over his head and the headline “The First Gay President.”

The cover story, by Andrew Sullivan, purports to answer some of the questions that Americans had immediately following Obama’s announcement: Was it planned, or forced by Joe Biden’s unscripted statement a few days earlier? And to the extent that it was planned, was it a heartfelt expression of a deeply held personal conviction, or a politically calculated move aimed at reelection, or something in between? Sullivan has been following Obama’s stance on marriage equality for years, and describes his heartbreak at watching Obama reiterate his view that civil unions are a better option at a fundraiser in 2007, but also a certain skepticism: “…it also felt strained, as if he knew it didn’t quite fit… he was both a cold, steely, ruthless, calculating politician who nonetheless wanted to do the right thing in the end.” Sullivan believes that this is something Obama has believed and wanted to make known for some time, and finally had the opportunity to.

As for the timing of that opportunity, Sullivan says that Obama had already been planning to make this announcement before the election, but not quite as soon as he did. He had meant to make his statement on The View yesterday, but Joe Biden’s statement pushed his schedule up, and instead he ended up talking with the women of The View about what his announcement meant. As in his interview with Robin Roberts, Obama carefully avoided implying any commitments about the legislative future of same-sex marriage, and instead stuck to talking about his own opinions on the subject.

And what about Newsweek’s title, “The First Gay President?” It’s a reference to the moment in 1998 when Toni Morrison called President Bill Clinton “the first black president,” saying, “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.” In the same vein, as Eric Randall of the Atlantic Wire points out, Obama has already been called the “first woman president” three times now, the “first Asian-American president,” the “first Hispanic president,” and the “first Jewish president.” In each of those instances, the allusion represents either Obama’s perceived solidarity with that group or is a suggestion that the facts of Obama’s own life somehow align him with this group. In this case, Sullivan asserts that Obama’s biracial identity gives him a lot in common with the gay community, despite the fact that for most of his life and career Obama told us that his religious identity informed his views on the gay community:

Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet. 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. 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 he intuitively understands gays and our predicament—because it so mirrors his own.

It’s not the first time attempts at comparisons between the experience of being gay and being of color have been made; drawing parallels between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the movement for gay equality are fairly common. (Although Sullivan does seem to be talking more specifically here about the experience of being biracial in America, which is admittedly different.) In a lot of ways, Sullivan’s point here seems to make some of the same mistakes that the attempt to call on the civil rights movement often does: although Obama has written extensively about his own life, feelings, and experiences, and Sullivan is well versed in the experience of growing up gay, he’s still ultimately writing as a white man, and locating Obama’s life experience within his own may be overreaching.

Furthermore, arguing that Obama’s move last week came out of a personal identification with the gay community seems almost reductive. It’s true that relating on a personal level to someone in the gay community is often a way in which someone comes to support our equality, but ultimately, it’s also just the right thing to to do. And isn’t that what Obama himself said? He spoke about friends, staff, and American servicemembers, and the kind of world that his own daughters expected to grow up in, and that ultimately his faith led him to support equality and families, not work against them. It’s very possible that Obama’s own experiences of marginalization and feelings of alienation contributed to his thinking on the matter, but it’s also possible that someone can look at the current state of things for gay Americans and simply come to the realization that it’s not okay — and that may be what we need from America as a whole more than anything.

Beyond the response of the media, the real-world effects of Obama’s announcement have been more difficult to pin down. In terms of day-to-day life for gay Americans, not much has changed; Obama’s statement was a matter of stance and principle more than anything else. The only indication we have of any real legislative change came on Monday, when Obama said during a fundraiser that his policy goals for his potential second term do in fact include repealing DOMA. The fundraiser in question was hosted by gay activists and attended by Ricky Martin, and seems to indicate that Obama’s stance will earn him more funding from gay donors, many of whom had been less enthusiastic after he refused to sign an executive order for gay workplace protections. Latino/a voters and activists also appear to be heartened by Obama’s move, and hope that they can adopt tactics similar to the gay rights movement and secure more from Obama in terms of immigration reform.

Voters on the whole, however, didn’t have a uniformly positive reaction. As far as supporting Obama’s support, one poll from Washington Post-ABC News is  evenly split, with 46% in favor of Obama’s announcement and 46% opposed (8% undecided). Polls that look at how Obama’s move might affect his overall success are even less optimistic. Although each poll is slightly different and none are definitive, polls from the Pew Research Center and the New York Times/CBS both found that roughly 25% of those polled are now less likely to vote for Obama as a result of his statement, and only 16-19% were more likely to vote for him. Polls also found that “a clear majority of Americans regarded Obama’s declaration of support for same-sex marriage as largely a political move,” which seems unlikely to win him a lot of support from any demographic. When asked about how he sees the election going, Obama said he believes the economy, and not gay marriage, will ultimately be what makes up voters’ minds.

“Gay president” or no, Obama’s unprecedented statement of support will go down in history as a surprising and to many, brave and compassionate, move towards support and solidarity with the gay community at a time when a politician’s stance on gay issues is perceived as a make-or-break issue. Whether it will also be remembered as something that made a major difference, either in the lives of gay Americans or in Obama’s political career, remains to be seen.

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

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  1. Religious groups and the GOP have suppressed the rights of the Gay and Lesbian community for FAR too long. It was about time a public official like Obama stood up for this human rights issue while Mitt Romney hides behind Red State Religion and his Magic Mormon Underwear. See Mitt in his sacred undergarments praying for enough money to buy this election so he can spread his bigotry and homophobia at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/05/mitt-romneys-magic-mormon-underwear.html

  2. Oof, that Newsweek cover is tacky, but I like the simplicity of the New Yorker.

    Good article, again, Rachel. I really hope in the end this doesn’t hurt Obama in the polls.

  3. can we give a shout out to our actual first gay president james buchanan? he had to deal with andrew jackson calling him Aunt Fancy and i can only imagine how that got old

    • Haha. In Australia we had Don Dunstan but he was only a premier (the equivalent of a Governor) not a Prime Minister.

    • Should we really be celebrating James Buchanan, though? He was kind of an awful president.

  4. “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.”

    I find identity formation and understanding SO fascinating, and I wish there was more of an impetus for people who identify as part of the mainstream to analyze the elements that make an individual who they are. No matter what sexual identity, gender or racial group you identify with, there are unique things in each person’s history that help form their own awareness of who they are. That shit is awesome! As a white, queer woman I can only speak for my own experience within those social constructs of identity, and to be totally honest I have had it pretty easy when it comes to finding a way to live in the gay community I’m coming to know since I came out a couple years ago and within my own family life. Even though I’m technically a member of groups that have been marginalized historically (women, lesbians, etc.), I myself have mostly only experienced unearned privilege due to my race. It would seem like that alienation piece isn’t so much what drives my interest in figuring out what’s important to my concept of my identity, but just being a person can feel pretty isolated sometimes. Bottom line- no matter who you are, pieces of you sometimes feel like they don’t fit in your world. Talking that crap out with some critical-thinking friends is a rad way to process that and open your heart a little wider to the world.

  5. I like the New Yorker cover. But Newsweek calling him the First Gay President is just ridiculous, I’ll save that title for someone who is actually gay.

  6. “…estranged from a father he longed for (another common gay experience)…”

    I really love it when minority writers reinforce stereotypes in their attempt to appeal to mainstream audiences.

    Really love it.

  7. The poll I’d be really curious to see isn’t the “more likely to vote *for* Obama” or not poll, it’s the “more likely to vote” or not poll. I don’t think you’ll find anyone (at least, not anyone sane) out there who was committed to voting for Mitt Romney until Obama revealed his support of gay marriage… similarly, I doubt you would find many (if any) voters who were truly undecided but were pushed to Obama after this announcement.

    I also don’t think you’ll really find too many who were supportive of Obama but changed their minds because of this announcement. Maybe some, sure, but people who are super opposed to marriage recognition are not usually liberal to begin with.

    Where I do think this might make a difference is in enthusiasm in certain segments of the base, especially younger voters. It’s been known for quite some time that interest has been flagging in these groups, and this might have the effect of making it easier to pump up turnout on election day. Much as there was something special about voting for the first black president in 2008, voting for the first president to back LGBT equality could come to be seen as a historic / civil rights moment amongst the youth population, thereby increasing participation over where things seemed headed… probably not to ’08 levels, but maybe just enough.

    • this asshole former mayor in boston is all anti obama now because of the announcement, and everyone’s (whose opinions I take seriously) is like “Do you REMEMBER having Romney as governor?”

  8. John Fugelsang, the man whose questions led to the Mitt Romney “etch a sketch platform” meme, was on my favorite public radio station today and had this to say about Obama’s coming out (har) in favor of gay marriage:

    “I have conservative republican friends that came to me after that and said ‘Romney just won the election’ and I told them ‘Good for you, but Obama just won HISTORY.’ Not only do I think this won’t cost him the election, it doesn’t matter, because President Obama saved lives when he said that. There are gay teens out there who will not kill themselves because Obama, the leader of the free world, openly acknowledged their love as equal.”

    Just had to share :) and I think he has a decent point.

  9. This actually annoys me a lot? It’s like when someone appropriates the identity of a marginalized group that they’re not part of, except it’s worse because the media’s incorrectly forcing him into that role. Don’t get me wrong, I obviously love the announcement, and this isn’t anything Obama’s doing…but for straight journalists to portray a straight man as “the first gay president” is just really bad. It’s like when Michael Reagan wrote an article about his father and called him “the first black president.” Regardless of actual policy, the election of a member of a marginalized group to office is a HUGE deal, and labeling someone as part of that group when they’re not diminishes the importance of that.

    • I get where you’re coming from on this, but I don’t think that in actuality any such labeling diminishes the importance of the achievement of electing someone who is in fact part of a minority group. It’s not as though Obama’s election as the first black president was diminished by the labeling of Clinton not all that long before as such because of his shared attributes / whatever. Similarly, when we get around to electing a gay person, latino, asian, jewish person, or (in like 2,208) a woman, as president, it’ll be just as big of a deal, regardless of who has been previously labeled as “the first” of their groups.

    • I agree that it was a tacky comparison but if we’re going to argue appropriation, Andrew Sullivan (who wrote the story) is himself gay.

  10. On another note, from looking at that Newsweek cover I am really interested in that story about eating jellyfish. I feel like they should have put a rainbow-colored gay jellyfish* on the cover.

    *and I was just about to add a note about how I don’t think jellyfish can be gay because they reproduce asexually, but according to Wikipedia they do both! yay!

  11. I was proud that Obama made this statement. He finally made it blatantly obvious that he is a supporter of equal rights for gay people. I truly believe he did this out of the want to say it. I do not believe he did it for political reasons. If he did, well it was a stupid move on his part.

    One reason he most likely didn’t do this for political reasons is that he pretty much had the gay vote on lock. If a gay person was going to vote, they would vote for Obama even before his declaration that he supports same-sex marriage. No gay person in their right mind would think Romney is a more reliable person when it becomes to gay rights. There wasn’t much to gain here, except money from gay donors, which doesn’t necessarily mean many more voters.

    Another reason why he most likely didn’t do this for political reasons is because when you have a 76% Christian country, there are definitively going to be members of your own party that will withdraw their support. That is exactly what has happened. Some conservative-leaning democrats have pulled their support of Obama. Add that to independents who lean conservative, and you got a situation where you lose more support than you have gained.

    In conclusion, Obama is a awesome mofo for ignoring the politics in his support gay marriage (or marriage as they say in Canada). I just hope to the Universe he doesn’t lose the election. Although he lost support of not that many people, a handful less of votes could cost him the election.

    • I think one argument that he did do this for political reasons, though, is the fact that he’d been getting a lot of criticism from liberals that he was too willing to “compromise” on important issues for the sake of appealing to moderates – one of those is gay rights. He’d have most the gay voters who SHOWED UP on a lock, but what about those who stayed home due to the slow pace of Obama’s change? Or voted third-party, which ends up hurting Obama thanks to the spoiler effect?

      Also, a big part of Obama’s success last time around was how passionate his supporters were, and how many of them showed up to campaign their hearts out for him. This announcement will help to mobilize his supporters to do more for him again. Personally, while my vote for Obama was never in question, this has mobilized me to do more to ensure his victory.

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