When it comes to the most recent headline wars (and subsequently, newsstand sales battles) between Time and Newsweek magazine, it’s a de facto tit-for-tat. Both offer covers have been deemed controversial, though I worry one may be more harmful than the other. Where as some have placed their “fury” (re: playing into the obvious attempt at attention seeking) towards the former for featuring a child of happy meal age simulating a breastfeeding with his mama, I’m more – uh – perplexed (yes, I’ve been suckered, too) by the latter’s cover, which hails President Obama as “The First Gay President.”
Columnist Andrew Sullivan, who penned the cover story, writes about Obama’s history with respect to gay rights and marriage equality and argues that the president’s biracial background mirrors that of the gay experience.
Sullivan says: “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.”
And according to the conservative columnist, “This is the gay experience: the discovery in adulthood of a community not like your own home and the struggle to belong in both places, without displacement, without alienation.”
It’s an interesting comparison, one that you suspect Sullivan wrote in earnest (thought here seems to be a really naive understanding about what being 'gay' is all about; Sullvan almost sounds like the White kid who took Afro studies classes and 'gets' Blackness). Nevertheless, how this point was prefaced reads a bit like déjà vu – and just as problematic as the first time we’ve heard of such declarations. Indeed, when Toni Morrison argued told the New Yorker that former President Bill Clinton was “The First Black President,” it seemed largely rooted in the notion that the southern Clinton fit a bevy of Black stereotypes: the manner in which he spoke, the food that he liked, the fact that he played the saxophone, and other little attributes that make him more so my Southern brethren than my Black brother.
Several years later, Morrison would go on to explain to Time magazine: "People misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race."
That’s still a bit of a stretch to me and no less inaccurate than a gay writer dubbing our current president the first gay one because his policies have worked to advance the rights of gays and lesbians.
Obama is not the first gay president. He’s also not the first female president, the first Jewish president, or the first Hispanic president — all of which he’s been declared at one time or another during his first term. In a way, this sort of talk of trivializes Obama’s accomplishments in each area, or in some cases, over exaggerates them. Kind of like Obama’s record on immigration, which doesn’t make many Latinos proud. Same for Clinton’s record with Blacks, which Melissa Harris-Perry once described is not as worthwhile as many believe it to be.
I imagine it’s not a coincidence that the same editor behind the headline for Morrison’s essay is also behind the one for Sullivan’s work. I get it: Tina Brown has magazines to sell. However, in the future she and many of her ought to try being a bit more creative in the way that push their pieces and publications – and being a bit more credible wouldn’t hurt either.