When Democratic hopeful John Edwards bowed out of the 2008 Presidential race, he did so with this line: “We do not know who will take the final steps to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but we do know that our Democratic Party will make history.”
And Edwards is, of course, absolutely right.
One generation ago, the notion that the last two candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination would be not one, but two minorities, a biracial man and a woman—for readers joining us from the darkest recesses of the Mariana Trench—would have been a fevered, wet-brained fantasy left to the wildest imaginings of political dreamers. And yet…there they were.
So, is it really that audacious to hope for a gay President?
Maybe not. While the above political intrigue unfolded, GLBT rights have advanced like the slowest of tides. Same-sex marriage made some intriguing advances this spring. And the 21st Century has marked some gain, despite an unfriendly Presidential administration, in family law, antidiscrimination protections, and hate crime legislation.
In fact, it’s entirely likely that we already have had a gay President. If we take the conservative estimate that only 6 percent of the general population is gay, and apply it to the United States Presidency, three Chief Executives—statistically speaking—have been gay (and that’s not even counting George W. Bush’s proclivity for the word “fabulous”).
Interestingly, three Presidents most often are supposed by historians to have been light in the electorate: James Buchanan, whose confirmed bachelorhood was semiscandalous even in his own time; Abraham Lincoln, who famously (and literally) slept with his lifelong friend, Joshua Fry Speed, then later sent him letters professing a deep and passionate love; and James Garfield, who walked through a Washington, DC, station arm-in-arm with his Secretary of State, James Blaine. But, frankly, at least as much evidence exists against the notion of each President’s homosexuality, and the proof on either side has been whisked away by the implacable winds of history.
A better question, then, is this: Will there ever be an out President?
“Out” can be depressingly subjective. Until very recently, a glass ceiling kept openly gay politicians from achieving national office—that is, until people like Tammy Baldwin hit the scene. A Democrat from Wisconsin, she is, so far, the only openly queer person to win first election to a national office. (We love her, even though she roots for the Green Bay Packers.) Three other national politicians have managed to win re-election after being outed—the most famous of whom is Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank.
The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington-based organization that provides strategic, technical, and financial support for openly GLBT candidates, correctly lays out the quandary for any national candidate: “It takes courage and determination to run for office, and even more to run as an openly GLBT candidate. In your pursuit of public office, you must run smarter campaigns, raise more money, and fight harder for viability and support than your opponents.”
Put two zeros behind those conditions, and you have an idea of what it would be like for an openly GLBT candidate to run for the highest office in the land.
Yeah, it’s audacious to hope for an out President. But a political unknown may have laid out an effective outline for something he called the politics of hope, something the GLBT tribe well might pattern itself after.
“Hope in the face of difficulty,” he addressed the 2004 Democratic Convention. “Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!”
Whatever happened to that guy, anyway?