04/17/2012 10:40 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Rainbow Over the White House: Could Americans Elect an Openly Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual President?

In an era when neither race nor gender, Catholicism nor Mormonism, seem to be insurmountable obstacles for presidential aspirants, could American voters ever elect an openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) president? The question has certainly been asked before, and no less a presidential expert than Jimmy Carter argued in late 2010 that this could happen "in the near future," based on rapid pro-gay shifts in public opinion. But several formidable hurdles, and one in particular, still remain.

No openly LGB person has ever been elected to one of the three main springboards to the presidency -- a U.S. Senate seat, a state governorship, or the vice presidency. Nor have any come out during their tenure, save for the sad case of New Jersey's Jim McGreevy, who, in 2004, simultaneously stepped out of the closet and resigned as governor. Nonetheless, lower levels are brimming with potential, from Wisconsin U.S. Representative and leading Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin, to House members David Ciciline of Rhode Island and Jared Polis of Colorado, to Houston Mayor Annise Parker and on to New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a frontrunner to be the next mayor. Below that political echelon can be found dozens of openly LGB mayors, city and state legislators, and other elected officials. (Transgender political figures remain exceedingly rare.)

So why does an LGB president still seem such a remote prospect? It may help to think of the presidency in terms of its four major roles. One of these is serving as head of the federal bureaucracy. Though no openly LGB person has yet been appointed to a Cabinet-level position, they have served capably in the highest ranks of the subcabinet, in White House offices, and in top administration jobs. Imagining an LGB person as the bureaucrat-in-chief, then, seems a small step.

The second role of chief diplomat would raise different questions, particularly whether the leaders of other countries would treat an LGB person with the respect and deference due to a president of the United States. And it does, indeed, bend the mind to imagine an openly gay chief executive shaking the hands of the King of Saudi Arabia or the President of Nigeria on equal terms. However, the Secretary of State role was managed smoothly by Condoleezza Rice, who had the "disadvantages" of being both black and female, and openly LGB ambassadors and other consular officials have served the U.S. ably. In the end, the diplomatic power of the United States derives not from being loved but, in the old Machiavellian sense, from being respected or feared.

Much the same would presumably be true for the third presidential position of commander-in-chief, which, since the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," has seemed less like alien territory for an LGB person. Just as the military was able to seamlessly integrate the reversal of DADT, the strong tradition of civilian rule in the U.S. would prevail over any objections within the ranks. And any LGB person capable of winning the U.S. presidency should be able to meet eye-to-eye with top generals and other world leaders alike.

The final, and most problematic, presidential role is that of head of state, which focuses on symbolic activities such as laying wreaths, awarding medals, and issuing proclamations. Ironically, this is the role with the fewest constitutional powers. Yet precisely because it is such a blank screen, the head-of-state role would be particularly precarious for an LGB person. It proved so even for the decidedly heterosexual Bill Clinton, whose impeachment was based, ultimately, not on any abuse of presidential power but on much vaguer grounds of debasing the "dignity of the office."

How much harder would it be, then, for an LGB person to occupy this amorphous yet potent presidential role? To provide an inexact comparison, consider how simple it would be to envision an openly gay prime minister of the U.K., but how difficult it is to imagine an openly gay king. Even apart from the imperative to produce biological heirs, the monarch's role is deeply interwoven with images of historical continuity, of national identity, even of religious consecration. Although the White House is scarcely Buckingham Palace, it remains difficult to picture a gay or lesbian president standing with his or her same-sex partner on the receiving line at a black-tie state dinner, or lighting the national Christmas tree, or hosting the family Easter Egg roll. In its own way, the U.S. is still a type of monarchy. And that may end up being the greatest impediment of all to a rainbow over the White House.