Ever since Obama’s public announcement of his support for same-sex marriage (with, it seems, an important qualification), the word “gay” has been getting a workout. In a joke with painfully tortured logic, Tea Party senator Rand Paul recently accused Obama’s position on marriage of becoming “gayer”–apparently using the word “gay” in the seventh-grade sense of “weak” or “lame.” But the more interesting and more troubling use of “gay” is by conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan, who is gay and who supports same-sex marriage, penned the cover story for this week’s Newsweek in which he labels Obama “the first gay president.” Now I’m not sure which is more surprising: that there still exists a magazine called Newsweek or that Andrew Sullivan seems to be suggesting that Barack Obama is sexually attracted to men. But alas, only one of those two statements is true (and not the sexy one). Because Andrew Sullivan is using the word “gay” in a peculiar way.
I guess we could call Sullivan’s use of the word “gay” tropological. His argument is that Obama knows what it is like to be gay because his experiences as a biracial man are similar to the tropes of growing up gay. As Sullivan notes,
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.
I won’t deny that there is something about this that sounds convincing, although it seems to collapse distinctions that probably matter. Is there such a thing as general “displacement” (a word Sullivan uses to summarize this part of his argument)? Or are there multiples types of displacement–and if so, is racial displacement similar enough to growing up gay? This kind of argument requires more than the few paragraphs that Sullivan gives it. But even if we accept that Obama’s experiences are much like those of gay people, Sullivan recognizes that his argument needs something more. After all, regardless of Obama’s life story, Sullivan wasn’t praising him as “gay” when he was criticizing him for dragging his feet on DADT.
In this way, Sullivan does better than Toni Morrison, who set the precedent for figuratively assigning social identities to American presidents. In 1998, in the midst of Lewinsky madness, Toni Morrison wrote in the New Yorker that Bill Clinton was our “first black President.” She argued that
African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. […] 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. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke?
Years later, Morrison defended her use of the phrase “first black President” by arguing that she was misunderstood, that she was only suggesting that Clinton was being treated like a black man. And indeed, this is part of the above quotation. However, she also goes beyond this. Like Sullivan does almost fifteen years later, she links the President’s life story to a particular social identity that he doesn’t actually possess. Before Barack Obama lived the tropes of gayness, Bill Clinton lived the tropes of blackness.
But how do such experiences translate into the realm of politics? The reason that Morrison found herself having to defend her original statement is that it is easy for social identity labels to paper over troubling failures on the level of policy. Calling Bill Clinton the “first black President” makes it easier to forget that, in many ways, Bill Clinton’s presidency wasn’t actually very good for African Americans. There was his willingness to throw African American appointees under the bus. There was his calculated attack on Sister Souljah, designed to demonstrate to white folks his willingness to stand up to the black community. And then there was welfare “reform.” Not exactly a record to brag about.
Sullivan demands better from Obama. In addition to the trope of “gay” displacement, Sullivan requires specific anti-homophobic policies. And Obama, as of late, has started to deliver. Even so, Sullivan has to expend a significant amount of effort in his piece explaining away Obama’s previous equivocations and delays as “political calculation” and “playing the long game” (although, as Sullivan comes awfully close to arguing, perhaps gay Obama was just closeted throughout most of his first term). But regardless of whether Obama has evolved or has finally just expressed what he believed all along, Sullivan reckons it’s enough to make him our first gay president.
In a sense, the logic of Sullivan’s argument is sound. Identity politics, as it is practiced in our current political discourse, reduces identity to a set of experiences and a corresponding set of political beliefs that are rooted in those experiences. So if Obama has lived “displacement” (which Sullivan argues is the sine qua non of gay experience) and if he has been led by that experience of displacement to support anti-homophobic policies on marriage and military service, we can call him gay.
My intention in this post is not to mount a full-scale assault on identity politics. For one thing, thoughtful critiques already abound (google “queer theory”). But I’m also not sure I want to. Even in the face of these critiques, I find myself ambivalent about identity politics and unwilling to abandon it entirely. Many people that I love are deeply invested in the political struggle for LGBT rights and they deserve my support. And then there is my own potential personal investment–whether I like it or not, my ability to visit my partner in the hospital (heaven forbid) in the foreseeable future probably hinges on the same-sex marriage debate as it is currently framed. So I’m not here to demand the abandonment of identity politics.
But I do think there is something wrong with a model of gay identity that can plausibly be applied to a man who has never admitted being sexually attracted to another man. What’s missing from this type of gay identity is sexuality itself. And while Sullivan might be offering a hyperbolic version of gay identity completely divorced from sexuality, there is a way in which mainstream gay rights groups have promoted a version of gay identity that tends to elide the hot gay sex. Indeed, as Dahlia Lithwick notes in an article in The New Yorker, the case that led the Supreme Court to overturn state sodomy laws (Lawrence v. Texas) was based on a litigation strategy that deemphasized sodomy:
In short, the legal issue was not that free societies must let drunken gay Texans have sex; it was that gay families around the country, in the words of one of the lawyers in the case, “are essentially just like everybody else.”
While I’m not going to argue with results (no more sodomy laws!), I think that gay rights activists have been too willing to downplay the aspects of gay life–like drunken gay sex–that many straight people might look askance at.
What I want to suggest is that this impulse to downplay drunken gay sex in the pursuit of gay rights has reached its logical conclusion in Sullivan’s argument. The consequence: the most famous gay man in the world is a man who doesn’t have gay sex. And this is ridiculous. People who identify as gay (however uneasily) need to start asking whether the dominant political conceptions of gay identity have become too impoverished to capture the fullness of our lives. If we are going to pursue identity politics, maybe we need to start crafting a better political category of identity–regardless of whether it seems optimally sympathetic. There is more to being gay than being bullied and wanting to get married (as meaningful and important as these issues are), and we need to create a politics that recognizes this fact.