A Gay Commander in Chief: Ready or Not?
By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: December 18, 2010
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Jimmy Carter is putting the out in outspokenness.
In an interview with bigthink.com, the former president was asked, “Is the country ready for a gay president?”
Even as John McCain and other ossified Republicans were staging last-minute maneuvers to torpedo the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, the 86-year-old Carter was envisioning a grander civil rights victory.
“I would say that the answer is yes,” he said. “I don’t know about the next election, but I think in the near future.”
The news that Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer will smooch in an upcoming movie about J. Edgar Hoover and his aide Clyde Tolson — buried near each other in the Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill — is a reminder of an “Advise and Consent” Washington where being a closeted gay official made you vulnerable to blackmail.
Others feel we’re not ready for a gay president, citing the fear and loathing unleashed by the election of the first black president. “Can you imagine how much a gay president would have to overcompensate to please the macho ninnies who control our national debate?” Bill Maher told me. “Women like Hillary have to do it, Obama had to do it because he’s black and liberal, but a gay president? He’d have to nuke something the first week.”
I called Barney Frank, assuming the gay pioneer would be optimistic. He wasn’t. “It’s one thing to have a gay person in the abstract,” he said. “It’s another to see that person as part of a living, breathing couple. How would a gay presidential candidate have a celebratory kiss with his partner after winning the New Hampshire primary? The sight of two women kissing has not been as distressful to people as the sight of two men kissing.”
Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, he added, “it’s not clear that a gay president could use federal funds to buy his husband dinner. Would his partner have to pay rent in the White House? There would be no Secret Service protection for the paramour.”
Frank noted that we’ve “clearly had one gay president already, James Buchanan. If I had to pick one, it wouldn’t be him.” (The Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan aims higher, citing Abe Lincoln, who sometimes bundled with his military bodyguard in bed when his wife was away.)
Frank said that although most Republicans now acknowledge that sexual orientation is not a choice, they still can’t handle their pols’ coming out. “There are Republicans here who are gay,” he said of Congress, “but as long as they don’t acknowledge it, it’s O.K. Republicans only tolerate you being gay as long as you don’t seem proud of it. You’ve got to be apologetic.”
Sam Adams, the mayor of Portland, Ore., hopes that the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” will help persuade “the collective conscience of the United States that gay people are just the same as anybody else. We shouldn’t have to die in the closet. The irony is, as mayor, I marry people, but I can’t marry Peter, my longtime partner.”
There are no openly gay senators, governors, cabinet members or Supreme Court justices. There are four openly gay Democratic House members, once David Cicilline of Rhode Island gets sworn in.
Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin recalled that during a race for State Assembly, a voter she thought was “trouble” swaggered up to her. But she need not have braced herself. “If you can be honest about that,” he told her, “you’ll be honest about everything.”
She said she took her former girlfriend, Lauren, to White House parties to meet three presidents, interactions that she thinks “really helps change minds and advance the cause.”
Representative Jared Polis of Colorado said he took his boyfriend, Marlon Reis, to a White House Christmas party this year. He said Marlon is “very popular — some of his best friends are Republican spouses.”
Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign fretted to his husband that a gay president would be anticlimactic.
“People expect this bizarro and outlandish behavior,” he told me. “We’re always the funny neighbor wearing colorful, avant-garde clothing. We would let down people with our boringness and banality when they learn that we go to grocery stores Saturday afternoon, take our kids to school plays and go see movies.”
After studying polling data for a decade, Sainz thinks a lesbian would have a better shot at the presidency than a gay man. “People are more comfortable with women than they are with men because of stereotypes with gay men about hypersexuality,” he said.
André Leon Talley, the Vogue visionary, pictures a lesbian president who looks like Julie Andrews and dresses to meet heads of state in “ankle-length skirts, grazing the Manolo Blahnik kitten heels.” She would save her “butch trouser suit for weekends at Camp David and vacation hikes in Yellowstone. No plaid lumberjack shirts at any time.”