FOR THE RECORD:
Make that his ungayness. It's not just that the president was clueless enough to overlook the possibility that a joke about his wife "not going down all the way" when competing against Ellen DeGeneres in push-ups would be interpreted as a dirty double-entendre. It's that, well, he's isn't gay.
Not that this was in question. The Newsweek cover line was playing off the famous Toni Morrison quote about Bill Clinton being "the first black president." Andrew Sullivan, who wrote the Newsweek story, didn't say anything about Obama being gay but rather likened the president's awakening to his black identity to a coming-out process. "Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet," Sullivan wrote. "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."
Morrison's point about Clinton, which she expressed in the New Yorker in 1998, amid the convulsions of the Monica Lewinsky investigation, had to do with the degree to which the president's upbringing — poor, with a single mother, saxophone-playing and junk-food eating — resembled cliched notions of the black experience. "Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs," Morrison wrote. "White skin not withstanding, this is our first black president." Morrison was suggesting that the prosecution team that descended upon Clinton and eventually impeached him was, in essence, a lynch mob.
Both Sullivan and Morrison leave themselves open to some quibbling. In Sullivan's case, the widely believed idea that Obama's identification as a black man didn't come about as an aha moment as much as a conscious choice makes the analogy to coming out of the closet problematic (another widely believed idea being that sexual orientation is not a choice).
In Morrison's case, her description of Clinton's upbringing makes me wonder why Clinton wasn't merely regarded as (to use a term for which there's no polite alternative) "the first white trash president." Granted, it's an ugly term freighted with racial code and class baggage, but still, Morrison's comparison (or more accurately the comparison by whoever those early murmurers were) seems more driven by a sense of poetic fellowship than an adherence to accuracy.
And, no wonder. The "first [fill in the blank] president" is catchy, if more or less empty. But its potential for misleading people who take it for something more than a turn of phase also makes it dangerous. That's because it implies that supporting the rights of a particular group requires being a member of that group — at least metaphorically. It implies we can empathize with someone only if we can relate directly to that person's experience. Along the way, it subtly diminishes the larger concept of fairness, the idea that your neighbor deserves the same rights as you do regardless of whether the two of you have anything whatsoever in common.
Imagine if this idiom had been around over the entire last century. Would Woodrow Wilson, who supported female suffrage, have been called "the first woman president"? Would John F. Kennedy, who started the Special Olympics, be called (to use the parlance of the time) "the first mentally retarded president"? No. The identity politics that lie at the foundation of phrases like "the first gay president" are a phenomenon of recent decades, a period during which the ethos of American individualism mutated into something more like grandiose self-absorption. In this era, we have come to judge our leaders not necessarily by what they do for us but how much we think they resemble us.
So, let's say it one last time: The president isn't gay. But after this last week of fundraising, some of his best friends are.