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Brokeback Barack: Our First Gay President?

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

If Bill Clinton was, as Toni Morrison once argued, our first Black president, could Barack Obama be our first gay? Is Obama the hope lesbians and gays have been waiting for -- and if not, why should all Americans care?

Ellen is an outspoken Hillstar and gay boys, of course, have long held a soft spot for a tragic diva -- even a hawk-diva in a pants-suit who has only been married once. (Did Obama really think his booty-shaking on national TV was going to impress America's favorite lesbian?) But it may be the drama-free Obama -- despite his opposition to same-sex marriage -- who engenders a cultural breakthrough in LGBT history; at the very least, his example offers some hortatory lessons for the gay community.

One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that gays would prefer any Democrat campaigning in 2008 to the night-of-the-living-dead running for the homophobic-is-my-sobriquet-GOP-zombie of the season. Taking a seat at the back of the Straight Talk Express, fast on its mettlesome road to cementing the status-quo, is hardly how any lesbian or gay person hopes to escape the fetters of second-class citizenship. Thanks, but I'll pass on President McLame.

But hope for legal equality no longer comes easy for gay and lesbian Americans -- not even from a Democratic party celebrating the historic milestone of nominating an African-American or a woman. The LGBT invitation to the Democratic orgy of multiculturalism has been tepid at best: the only candidates to unequivocally support same-sex marriage have long stepped off the primary stage (one of whom also believes in UFOs).

Though same-sex liberation defiantly emerged alongside its path-breaking sister movements in the 1960s -- the civil rights and women's rights movements -- not many in the Democratic Party seem disquieted that, while a women and an African-American share a milestone for their respective histories, a lesbian or gay presidential candidate remains beyond even the reaches of fantasy.

For all of our so-called American progress, lesbians and gays continue to suffer discrimination in the most retrogressive and violent (not to mention un-Western) of ways -- just ask the family of Lawrence King, a fifteen year old boy from Oxnard, California murdered this month by a classmate after proclaiming he was gay.

Not surprisingly, Hillary and Obama share almost all of the same LGBT policy proposals (with one exception: Obama avers that he will repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in its entirety; Hillary only in part), but many of these policies have been promised -- and abandoned for political expediency -- before. The seismic Clintonian disappointments of the 90s -- including the execrable DOMA which Bill signed--still cuts deeply. We have no real evidence that either candidate will remain solicitous to deliver once elected (though certainly this goes for non-LGBT promises too). Fool me once...

Why then should lesbians and gays heed Obama's call to open their hearts again and hope?

The legal, political, and social changes lesbians and gays are fighting for will only come with a cultural revolution that changes the internal attitudes of the general public. It is no secret that American culture still vilifies lesbian and gay people. Gays are still objects of amusement or fear or hostility, but little else. As one scholar put it over a decade ago, "No one wants to be called a homosexual."

No one, perhaps, but Obama. Obama is rewriting and reframing the cultural discourse on gay and lesbian rights. He nearly always includes lesbians and gays in his breathtaking visions for our country. From his very first oration marking his entry into the primary to his unprecedented confrontation with African-American ecclesiastical leaders at Ebeneezer Church (on Martin Luther King Day in the heart of the South!) to his stump speeches across the country, Obama has found a place for the LGBT community within his American dream. "If we are honest with ourselves," Obama railed to black leaders, "we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community. We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them."

I am often sympathetic to Hillary's peevish refrain that Obama may be all Elton John and no Bernie Taupin -- all performance and no substance. Obama might move an audience to tears now, but will his speeches translate into real change as president?

Hillary fails to consider that sometimes rhetoric is change. With his rhetorical defense of lesbian and gay Americans, rooted in an ideological and philosophical commitment to re-humanizing and de-vilifying LGBT folk, Obama is creating the cultural conditions within which political, legal, and social change can take place.

Obama is showing gays and lesbians how to win. His rhetoric transcends the we-they mentality that pervades our culture wars and prevents productive political dialogue: "[As president] I would encourage people to recognize themselves in each other." Rather than vilify the opposition, Obama has an understanding of his political adversaries.

Obama engages with the political opposition regarding the moral linchpin that divides this country with respect to gay rights--religion. Both in form and in content, Obama's speeches are infused with hypnotic spiritual power. He defends gay rights from conservative opposition--as very few other national figures have--on the latter's own religious terms, challenging those who, in his words, "elevated one line in Romans above the Sermon on the Mount." Because the gay rights movement has largely been defined on secular terms, religious conservatives have been given a free-pass when it comes to religious issues. Obama is willing and able to co-opt a spiritual orating style, to use Biblical allusion, and to speak from a deep commitment to hallowed religious and spiritual values when defending and embracing his gay brothers and lesbian sisters.

But Obama is no gay Moses. He refuses to bring gays and lesbians to their promised land: he strongly opposes same-sex marriage rights. Ironically, Obama points to his own interracial parents and the horrors of anti- miscegenation laws to express his solidarity with gays. I wonder: if Obama's parents had been forced to settle for a civil union instead of a marriage, would Obama have found it equitable and just? Obama has argued (mistakenly) that the difference between a marriage and a civil union is one of semantics, but was it not Obama who taught us to take our semantics seriously? Senator Obama: Just words?

There are millions of lesbian and gay Americans who dream about their wedding day just like straight Americans. Barack Obama has called on Americans, including lesbians and gays, to place their hopes in him, but how can the gay community support Obama when its dreams and hopes are too audacious for even him to support?

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