Newsweek's 'first gay president' Obama cover: Daring or desperate?

OPINION - To be fair, Andrew Sullivan has the best intentions. But it seems curious that he thinks he can intuitively understand Obama's journey and experience of being 'black' in America...

Newsweek magazine published a cover story this week declaring Barack Obama “the first gay president.” The piece, by the prolific columnist and political commentator Andrew Sullivan, was a deeply emotional treatise seeking to understand Obama’s personal journey, his advancement of gay rights and his recent declaration in support of full marriage equality.

Ultimately Sullivan’s article and the adjacent cover had very little to do with one another. Newsweek followed Time magazine’s lead with a controversial cover displaying a young mother nursing her three-year-old son for a feature about the appropriateness of “attachment parenting.”

According to the Associated Press, Time claims a total print circulation of 3.3 million, just over double Newsweek’s 1.5 million — making the need to increase newsstand sales crucial to remaining competitive. In the digital age, in which consumers increasingly get news via television or internet, the respected but struggling Newsweek resorted to a publicity campaign of shock value: fairly harmless and understandable. But the question of whether it is appropriate to reference the president as gay has sparked debate across mainstream media.

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The reference, of course, is meant as a throwback to the Toni Morrison declaration in the 1990s of Bill Clinton as “the first black president”. Though Morrison’s words were meant figuratively — as a compliment to the inclusive Clinton presidency — her comment, too, was not without its critics.

But Sullivan’s column goes a bit farther than many African-Americans are comfortable with. It isn’t simply a matter of accessing Obama’s “evolution” on gay rights. Sullivan, who is white and British, seeks to analyze President Obama by conflating his journey as a biracial man — who identifies as black — as that with a gay person coming to terms with their true identity.

“Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet,” Sullivan writes. “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…hurtling between being a Barry and a Barack, needing an American racial identity as he grew older but chafing also against it.”

To be fair, Sullivan has the best intentions. But it seems curious that he thinks he can intuitively understand Obama’s journey and experience of being ‘black’ in America.

“Obama learned to be black the way gays learn to be gay,” he continues. “And in Obama’s marriage to a professional, determined, charismatic black woman, he created a kind of family he never had before, without ever leaving his real family behind.”

This is where Sullivan makes a drastic error. Much like the oft-articulated discomfort many African-Americans have for a conflation of the gay rights struggle with the civil rights movement, Sullivan has tapped an uncomfortable nerve; namely, when white people try to define blackness, as though they are an authority on the subject.

I spoke with three prominent African-American professionals, who happen to be gay, to get their opinion on the subject. We discussed the Newsweek cover, Sullivan’s piece, what Obama’s “coming out” means for greater levels of acceptance within the black community as well as the president’s re-election chances this November.

Clay Cane, writer and radio host of Equality Pride programming on New York’s WWRL 1600AM, said, “I sighed with disappointment when I saw Newsweek declaring Obama as, “the first gay president” with a rainbow halo around his head. The legendary magazine is waving the hot-button word — “gay” — in America’s faces, not in an embracing way, but in order to fan-the-flames of homophobia. Furthermore, Andrew Sullivan’s claim that President Obama discovered his blackness in the way that gays discover their sexuality is preposterous. Barack was not a “tragic mulatto,” balancing in between whiteness and blackness. Obama’s blackness was as natural as his sexual orientation.

I asked Cane if the Toni Morrison reference was an appropriate correlation.

“Obama is not the first gay president, just like Bill Clinton was far from the first black president,” Cane says. “Is it necessary to remix people’s identities just because a politician lends their support to a particular community? No. You don’t have to be gay to support equal rights for the LGBT community. You don’t have to be black to support the struggles of the African-American community. There are allies on every front. With the salacious headline, Newsweek minimized Obama and Biden’s support of the LGBT community to Vaudeville.”

I continued the conversation with LZ Granderson, the CNN contributor and ESPN sports writer — a pioneer and beautiful anomaly, who agreed with Cane and expounded.

“I found the cover ridiculous, which is totally separate from Andrew’s piece. And it’s important for readers to understand that Andrew doesn’t choose headlines or design magazine covers,” said Granderson. “But it undermines the conversation by suggesting that to support a group you must be a part of it. Obama is simply doing what we want our presidents to do: speaking on behalf of all of us.”

Granderson framed the conversation in a historical context. “The race of the people marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Sixties didn’t matter. What they were marching for was bigger than them. They were marching for the truth.”

On the subject of how this may affect the 2012 election, Granderson believes the question of gay rights extends beyond race. “It’s about the role of religion. Will this hurt Obama among evangelical Christians? I don’t know. But I was a youth pastor in my church. And I encourage all those black ministers, who may say disparaging things, to try holding a service without the gay brothers and sisters in the congregation and choir. Tell them to research Bayard Rustin. This isn’t about black, white, gay or straight. It’s about truth.”

Keith Boykin, a political commentator, former Clinton White House aide and author of “One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America,” was less concerned about Newsweek and instead focused on the substance of Obama’s evolution. “The president’s statement was courageous and bold,” said Boykin.

“We all knew, or suspected, that Obama supported same-sex marriage, but he had never said it, and that was a watershed moment. This reminds me of the argument for and against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Everybody knew there were gays in the military; the question was whether they could say they were gay. It is so ironic that ‘coming out’ has to even to happen for a heterosexual president of the United States.”

Boykin concluded, “I don’t believe this will affect the president negatively, but one thing is certain: this is not a one-way conversation. When the president speaks, people listen. And many African-Americans will begin to listen and hopefully change their minds on this issue. We are all evolving.”

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.