The First Gay President?

Andrew Sullivan —  May 16 2012 @ 11:19am

Scott Shackford takes issue with my cover-essay's thesis:

[Andrew Sullivan] concludes that Obama "learned" to be black the same way that gays "learn" to be gay, thus explaining the attention-grabbing headline. But even the idea of "learning to be gay" is getting old-fashioned, and it’s a little odd for Sullivan to be invoking it given his blog's periodic chafing at the gay establishment. In his need to make Obama "one of us," he has nearly gone collectivist. The gay community, to the extent one exists, has fractured and diversified significantly since the days of Harvey Milk, and we’re all the better for it.

Yes, mercifully, learning "how to be gay" is increasingly old-fashioned, and many of us worked hard to expand the range of experiences and opinions and lifestyles than can be included within a gay community, including being connected to our straight families and friends, serving in the military or voting Republican. But Obama is almost exactly my own age, and in my own generation, and I felt and feel a resonance with his description of his own grappling with identity in his youth in the 1960s and 1970s. I cannot speak for all gay people; but I can speak to my own experience and suggest common themes. And if my own experience were completely an outlier, marriage equality would have remained a quixotic intellectual game for a few gay conservatives.

But there is, of course, an aspect to this that is timeless, and that is the fact the vast majority of gay kids grow up in straight families.

And they understand marriage long before they understand sex. And that breach between their identity and their parental models of authority is deeply wounding. The possibility of civil marriage – of being equal with your own parents and siblings – targets this wound, and does more than anything else to salve it. This experience is not limited to conservative Catholic kids, although they should not be dismissed either. It has been close to universal. It is becoming less so, with incalculable social consequences, because of the change in consciousness marriage equality has brought.

God knows I am not a collectivist. I'm a loner who has been at odds with vast tracts of my own gay community for decades. But I cannot indulge the fiction that gay people don't need one another still, that our communities and subcultures don't nourish us. I hope that issues such as marriage and the military, which signal to closeted conservative gays that they too can have dignity and pride if they come out, make such monolithic communities and subcultures less necessary. That's happened already, and yes, we are all the better for it. But reducing us entirely to individuals or to collectives misses the dynamic between the two. We exist in both gay and straight culture, the way Obama exists in white and black culture. You can dismiss this tension – or you can try to understand it better.