May 14th, 2012
02:14 PM ET

From first black president to 'first gay president'?

As if becoming the first black president wasn't momentous enough, Barack Obama has just been handed a new title: "First gay president."

A Newsweek magazine cover bestowed that distinction on Obama this week with a picture of the president and a rainbow halo. If you view that as a naked attempt to grab your attention, capitalize on the moment and have you pick up a newsmagazine, you might be right.

But that illustration along with a New Yorker cover showing the columns of the White House lit up in rainbow colors certainly shows how the president’s public support of same-sex marriage has pushed the issue back into the spotlight.

The magazines’ choices also speak to the broad cultural impact of Obama's announcement and pose questions about whether this moment may become a lasting part of his legacy.

That's not to say the president's announcement is necessarily a watershed moment. It earned him kudos and criticism despite the fact that he left the legal standing of same-sex marriage in the hands of the states and made no policy changes.

The issue also is far from resolved in the African-American community, and some conservatives say Obama's announcement comes at a political cost.

CNN.com's John Blake writes that some suggest the black church may punish Obama for announcing his support for same-sex marriage.

As millions went to church this weekend after the president's announcement, clergy across the country offered their opinions, with the words of black pastors a key base of support for Obama in 2008 carrying special weight in a presidential election year. But black pastors were hardly monolithic in addressing Obama's remarks.

Blake points out that a backlash by some African-American pastors, a campaign worry following the announcement, can be seen as historical irony. Black church leaders arguing against same-sex marriage are making some of the same arguments that supporters of slavery made in the 18th and 19th centuries, some historians say. Both groups adopted a literal reading of the Bible to justify withholding basic rights from a particular group.

Patrick R. Tull, a Lumberton, New Jersey, iReporter and Obama supporter, said that he believes marriage is between a man and a woman and that the president has alienated a big section of his supporters in the black community who have not "evolved" as the president has.

"The fact is many Americans, which includes Democrats, have not 'evolved' on the issue of same-sex marriage," Tull said. "Mr. President, you should have stood your ground and said, that you believe marriage is between a man and a woman, but you are against discrimination of any kind. Individual states should decide what's best for their state. It is a free country and people are free to love whomever they want and that's OK with me, but I believe that marriage is between one man and one woman."

Vera Richardson, also an Obama supporter, said the president’s stance on same-sex marriage will be his undoing for re-election.

“I am confused, I cannot vote for (Mitt) Romney, and I know Obama needs our vote, but he has caused anxiety in the black community," she said in an iReport.

But for Andrew Sullivan, the writer of the Newsweek article and also a gay man, Obama's announcement meant everything for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

"For gay Americans and their families, the emotional darkness of Tuesday night became a canvas on which Obama could paint a widening dawn," Sullivan writes. "But I didn’t expect it. Like many others, I braced myself for disappointment. And yet when I watched the interview, the tears came flooding down. ...

"I was utterly unprepared for how psychologically transformative the moment would be. To have the president of the United States affirm my humanity and the humanity of all gay Americans was, unexpectedly, a watershed. He shifted the mainstream in one interview. And last week, a range of Democratic leaders from Harry Reid to Steny Hoyer backed the president, who moved an entire party behind a position that only a few years ago was regarded as simply preposterous."

And for one Republican, the announcement swayed him toward supporting Obama.

“I'm very happy with Obama's decision because at the end of the business day I can see my partner and feel hopeful,” said iReporter David A. Seaman of Lansford, Pennsylvania. “I never would have thought he would do something like this. Just this decision alone made me swing way left to vote.”

While that analysis may be true for some, others wondered if the Newsweek cover went too far in enshrining the moment and its significance.

It's not entirely unprecedented to bestow such a title to a sitting president. In the '90s, Bill Clinton was dubbed America's first black president.

"African-American men seemed to understand it right away," Toni Morrison wrote in The New Yorker in 1998 about the Monica Lewinsky scandal that rocked Washington. "Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. 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 in many ways, the shared connections or perceived ones that earned Clinton that title, mockingly or not, is part of why Sullivan has bestowed "First Gay President" upon Obama.

Sullivan writes that a black president who likely had to go through a period of self-discovery growing up as well as struggle for equality shared in some way the plight of gay Americans. As Obama eventually shattered the barrier of office to the "White" House, his announcement will allow gay Americans to shatter the stereotypes placed on them, Sullivan argues.

“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," he writes. "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 week's column in The New Yorker, headlined "Wedding Bells," argues that Obama's announcement is on par with the importance of abolishing laws against interracial marriage in the 1960s.

Writer Margaret Talbot points to the Supreme Court's 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia that struck down anti-miscegenation laws, saying the acceptance of same-sex marriage is inevitable.

"One day, not long from now, it will be hard to remember what worried people so much about gay and lesbian couples committing themselves to marriage," Talbot writes in the New Yorker.

"And, eventually, the Court will do the right thing on same-sex marriage, just as the President did last week. As in the Loving decision, the Court will reaffirm that the 'freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.' And it will finally uphold that freedom for gay and lesbian Americans."

soundoff (1,368 Responses)
  1. Terry Brookman

    Simple answer is YES!

    May 14, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Justice

    No disrespect to those who REALLY care about this issue. I would like to know what Obama and Romney for that matter talk about how they will reduce the nation's debt...our spending is OUT OF CONTROL and our survival depends on reeling it back to the days of President William Jefferson Clinton. HELP!!!

    May 14, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • kman02

      But what about the tax rates. Put everything back the way it was before GW screwed it all up for everbody.

      May 14, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Conscious and Concerned

    First gay president?? Newsweek should have been alone in their foolish statement, shame on CNN for echoing a hollow empty sentiment for the sake of getting views. While I agree that it wasn't a good time for him to be forced into the spotlight on this issue, no one can tell him what to say on the issue! I feel so happy for the gay community hearing the president affirm their issues, and most of all their humanity. Hopefully the gay community can mobilize democrats in a bigger way than the Republican base has already been by their own primary. DON'T BE LAZY THIS FALL DEMS!!!

    May 14, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • kman02

      President Obama needs to fire Biden. He's been a liabilty from day one.

      May 14, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
  4. wolfpackbob

    It's the economy, Mr. President. Hey CNN, remember the economy? Or are you taking talking points straight out of Chicago campaign headquarters?

    May 14, 2012 at 11:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. lsn2me

    wow, the republican presidential campagn strategists are really desperate. seems a bit rovesque.

    May 14, 2012 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. charles bowen

    Americans lack respect...... Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

    May 14, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Mike S

    Clinton is not black and Obama is not gay.

    May 14, 2012 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. MikeNews

    He's a 'gay" and "Muslim" in his heart! That must be quite the conflict!

    May 14, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Rudy Gonzales

    No! Clinton was and still is white and Obama is still black and open-minded. TEA-Republicans are bigots and discriminatory deviants.

    May 14, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rob

      being gay and being deviant are oxymorons.

      May 15, 2012 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
  10. Wade

    He was in high school. Visiting all the gay bath houses in Chicago, smoking the dope and taking those drugs and hating those white people. Oh these are his words from his book not mine.

    May 15, 2012 at 12:00 am | Report abuse | Reply
  11. sickofitall

    CNN is hurting for headlines to come up with this crap. Would they label George Bush as "The warlord"?

    May 15, 2012 at 12:05 am | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Sudhir Kumar

    For all I care he can be doing his dog too. Is he working for the people who elected him is the question. Has congress been for the past three decades is the question. My answer is no. So its time to clean Washington and wall street. New parties new faces come November.

    May 15, 2012 at 12:05 am | Report abuse | Reply
  13. RenegadeFL

    What has happened to Journalism in this country?

    May 15, 2012 at 12:12 am | Report abuse | Reply
  14. sickofitall

    Sullivan is a fool, The "White House" has nothing to do with skin color and he knows it. With the country hurting this is the most inane subject this "person" could possibly come up with. How about "Jail House" when Nixon was occupying it.

    May 15, 2012 at 12:13 am | Report abuse | Reply
  15. USA

    Anyone who tries to make it law to prevent two consenting adults in love from being together is a sick, sick individual and should be ashamed of themselves. I can't wait until we reach the inevitable day where Americans can't believe gay marriage was ever an issue and are ashamed we ever had to even argue about this.

    If you don't like gay marriage don't get one! I salute my gay friends for being the bravest people I know in this country full of cruel idiots.

    May 15, 2012 at 12:14 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • sniper50caliber

      God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!

      May 15, 2012 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
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