You’ve probably seen this week’s cheeky Newsweek cover, featuring a rainbow-haloed Obama and the tag line, “America’s first gay president.” I had no idea it was that easy to be gay. By this logic, my family and all my straight friends are now gay. Absolutely fine by me, but oh, that it were truly so easy.
As you can see, I’ve struggled with my cynicism about this. I’ve waited a long time for an unambiguous sign of leadership on LGBT rights from the White House, and given that Obama’s brave announcement happened less than 24 hours after the passage of North Carolina’s whackadoo Amendment One, it was hard to do a happy dance. And when the lovely straight women I’m bicycling through the heartland with this month cheerily called out, “Aren’t you thrilled?!?” I just muttered something like, yeah, great, whatever. I probably seemed ungrateful.
This week he said what he’s known to be just plain right since the very day he took office. Evolution, my eye. I’ll believe it when he tells Congress to repeal DOMA, or else.
And my cynicism only got worse. My uncle sent me an email saying, “I’m not sure his public declaration actually helps your cause, because it will galvanize the anti-gay people.” Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this argument during every election cycle since San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. People actually blamed gay people for pushing for equality, stirring up the conservative zealots and thus getting George Bush elected to a second term in office.
After President Obama’s announcement, my mother took a more pragmatic approach and said, “Well, they’re gonna Swift Boat him anyway; might as well get it over with now.” I agreed and that was the extent of our discussion.
A few days later, I found myself in the childhood home and of Alex Haley, in Henning, Tennessee, reading about the author’s journey from being a workman journalist to one of the most influential characters in our recent cultural history. If you are younger than 40, you may not remember what a momentous event the book Roots, and in particular the miniseries adaptation, was. Though sanitized and made safe for prime time, Roots nonetheless stopped the country in its tracks for one week (no VCRs back then!), and got us talking openly, as a nation, about the legacy of slavery, in a way we never had never before. It was just one family’s story, but it was the right story for the moment.
Alex Haley’s personal motto was “Find the good, and praise it.” Sounds simple, but think about how hard that is when humans keep doing atrocious things. Or when our leaders could be doing so much more, but they don’t. To find the good when you know things could be much better—It’s a hell of a lot easier to complain, to be disappointed, to give up on people.
Those words stayed with me long after I’d peddled my bike away from Haley’s home and continued my journey up the Mississippi. They made me step back from my Obama bashing, and from politics entirely for a moment. Instead, I thought about what it means to regular folks (i.e., not politically obsessed geeks like me and my family) when our president says out loud that LGBT people are entitled to equality and dignity. Whatever your party affiliation, right now Obama is our president. He sets the tone for the country and should, in a perfect universe, speak to the best part of us. When we as a people go astray from our highest ideals, it’s his job to get us back on track. This is leadership. To any young or isolated LGBT person, to know that the president is on your side, without qualification, is no small thing.
Our leaders frequently avoid taking a firm stance for justice for fear of falling poll numbers. I am, now, thrilled that our president finally stood up for us. I really don’t care today that it came three years, or even one day, later than I wanted, or even why he did it. He’s here now. Thank you, Mr. President.
*Abby is a civil rights attorney-turned-author who has been in the LGBT rights trenches for 25+ years. She can be reached through her website: queerquestionsstraighttalk.com.