TW: trans erasure, female LGBT* erasure
Since Toni Morrison’s introspective musing in 1998 that Bill Clinton could be considered something akin to the United States’ first “Black” president, it seems every Democratic President until the end of time will now be seen as setting the stage for another disenfranchised social group that they don’t belong to. With one of the bigger political blogs out there already affectionately joking that Barack Obama was a “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln,” the logical next step is Andrew Sullivan writing a lengthy article claiming that Barack Obama is the first “gay” President.
I think in the end Sullivan’s efforts tell us more about him than Barack Obama. In comparison to his, Morrison’s criticism of the late Clinton era’s unique contempt for the President pointed to a multitude of individual events:
“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 body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: ‘No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.’“
In less than a paragraph, Morrison conjures up several cultural articles and life experiences important to many Black Americans which are also connected to Clinton. From there she branches out into the hostility to him, and the certainty and inevitability of his guilt, and how that mirrors so many of the experiences of Black people in the United States. Clinton at once springs from a social context similar in many ways to that of many Black Americans and suffers in a way parallel to many of them. In contrast, Andrew Sullivan seemed to bring the weak tea, just citing Obama’s childhood of social displacement and distinction even from his care-givers:
“The core gay experience throughout history has been displacement, a sense of belonging and yet not belonging. Gays are born mostly into heterosexual families and discover as they grow up that, for some reason, they will never be able to have a marriage like their parents’ or their siblings’. They know this before they can tell anyone else, even their parents. This sense of subtle alienation—of loving your own family while feeling excluded from it—is something all gay children learn. […] 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.“
But moreover his entire approach seems painfully shaped by his own experiences – he sees Obama as the first “gay” President, rather than the first “LGBT*” President. His narrative is erasive, as it connects portions of Obama’s life and work to portions of his own, while ignoring a larger context. If you read through the article, you’ll find Sullivan cites three major policy decisions that reveal Obama as the first “gay” President: completed the Bush-era efforts to rescind the ban on immigration of international travel to the United States by HIV+ individuals, dismantled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) as military policy, and stated his support for same-sex marriage.
To individuals unfamiliar with the LGBT rights movements this may look like a balanced list – but in reality it focuses near exclusively on issues that impact cisgender men who identify as gay or bisexual, to the exclusion of the policy concerns of lesbians, female bisexual, transgender, and genderqueer individuals. While the above policy changes are obviously beneficial to all Americans, the clearest beneficiaries are cisgender and gay or bisexual men. They are unfortunately at the greatest risk of HIV infection and therefore most clearly benefit from the new travel policies regarding HIV+ individuals, while transgender and genderqueer individuals remain sadly barred from military service as they are labeled as mentally unwell. Expanded marriage rights benefit lesbians or other couples of women, but they mean little in the absence of challenges to wage discrimination against women – on whom such a household depends for all of its income.
Amanda Simpson was the first openly transgender or genderqueer political appointee in United States history. She was appointed in 2009 by President Obama.
This isn’t to suggest that Obama has led in a way that’s prioritized the needs of cisgender, gay and bisexual men over the needs of other segments of the LGBT* community – he’s been the first to appointed openly trans women and men to public and official political positions, insisted on interpreting federal statutes barring gender discrimination to include transgender and genderqueer individuals, and been a strong advocate for equal pay regardless of gender. In clear, tangible ways, President Obama has changed political policies to reflect the needs of the entire LGBT* community (among other groups), not just a small portion of it.
To be brutally honest, Sullivan’s piece seems to work within his own experiences and stereotypes. He talks about it being a “common gay experience” to be “estranged from a father he [the gay person] longed for” – repeating one of the worst stereotypes about gay and bisexual men. Sullivan speaks of how people and gay men “are born mostly into heterosexual families,” sweeping aside queerspawn people as an omissible peculiarity. His language itself is erasive – as he speaks exclusive of gay people and the “gay” Obama – speaking of the experience of not only gay but also lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and many others with “separateness from their peers, a subtle estrangement from their families, the first sharp pangs of shame” as something that is “gay”. Needless to say, he uses epicene ‘he’. Ironically enough, in the very act of discussing solidarity between the straight (“gay”) President and gay (LGBT*?) constituents, Sullivan has perpetuated hostility towards less enfranchised LGBT* people.