By Karen Gautney | May 17, 2012 at 10:21 AM EDT | 5 comments
In the week following President Barack Obama's statement affirming same sex marriage, several commentators labeled him the “first gay president.” While the ensuing debates about whether he is or is not the first “gay president” were somewhat silly, I couldn’t help wondering whether Obama took it as a compliment.
President Clinton was called the first black president. I’m pretty sure he took that as a compliment. I wondered at the time why Truman wasn’t called the first black president for ordering the racial integration of the military, or Johnson for signing the Civil Rights Act. I suspect that in their era, being called the first black president would not have been considered a compliment.
Whom would we consider the first woman president? Would that be Woodrow Wilson, for promoting women’s suffrage? He was, of course, against it long before he decided to be for it. Evolving on social issues while occupying the White House did not start with Mr. Obama! Would Wilson have accepted a “first female president” moniker as compliment?
Consider the schoolyard. How would your average boy—let’s just stick with male examples since all the presidents we’ve discussed are male—feel about being called black by the other kids? How would he react to other kids saying he is gay? What about being compared to a girl? Move the question into your workplace and consider how your male colleagues would feel about being labeled black, gay, or female.
Certainly, whether we sit well with any of these configurations depends on four things.
1) Do we in fact possess the characteristic?
2) If we do not possess that characteristic, how do we regard those who do?
3) How do we think our peers perceive that characteristic?
4) Do we believe the comment was intended to disparage us?
We could create a matrix answering those questions starting with our three basic characteristics of gay, black, and female. For example, black people generally don’t bristle at being called black, because it is usually an obvious characteristic and pride in one’s race is expected. Calling a white person black is obviously not true and carries no sting if the subject and the audience hold black people in high esteem. Boys don’t take kindly to being compared to girls, even though it is usually obvious that they are not female, because they have learned that girls are less than boys. Closeted gay people don’t want to be called gay, but openly gay people don’t mind as long as the context does not suggest distain for gay people. Straight people generally don’t like being called gay. See numbers 2, 3 and 4 above to understand why.
Anti-gay voices, such as the discredited and professionally sanctioned Paul Cameron, have begun suggesting that Obama is actually gay. Why else, they say, would he support same sex marriage? It is not an obvious falsehood to say Obama is secretly gay (since we can’t tell by looking), in the same way that it would be an obvious falsehood to say he is female. Being gay is a negative characteristic in the eyes of many, and the aim of these critics is to besmirch him. Further, it serves as warning to other straight people that they may be similarly accused if they support gay rights causes. So, being called gay by a social conservative would not be intended, and probably not taken, as a compliment.
We’ll never know how Wilson would have reacted to being called the first female president, or Truman or Johnson to being called the first black president. Hopefully a reporter down the road will pose the “gay president” question to Mr. Obama. I’d be interested to hear his answer. In the meantime, we can keep ourselves busy with our own matrix, considering our thoughts and fears about being aligned with groups to which we do not belong.