For months prior to the election of Barack Obama I read and watched just about anything to do with US politics. I read about shifting demographics in Colorado and simmering resentments in Ohio. I scrutinized voters’ faces for clues to their psychology and I wondered about the accuracy of polling and if the so-called Bradley effect (aka hidden racism) would have an impact.
In fact up until 11pm on election night when ABC News projected an Obama victory (I don’t get CNN, which moved faster) I couldn’t quite believe it was going to happen. I wouldn’t let myself. It seemed like too much to hope for. Even afterward I wondered if voting irregularities might once again strip the Democrats of victory.
In short, I was heavily invested in this election and the funny thing is that I can’t imagine being as excited about the election of a gay man. Not just because it’s hard to imagine a gay candidate as charismatic as Obama.
You’d think it would be a big deal, an openly gay man running for high political office, at least as big as the candidacy of a half-black guy with a Kenyan father and an Arab middle name. But it doesn’t ignite the imagination, does it?
At the moment this is just a thought experiment. With the exception of Svend Robinson before he imploded and congressman Barney Frank in the US it’s hard to think of an openly gay politician with a national profile, let alone one capable of running for high office. Judging from the election-night success of antigay initiatives in four US states there’s not going to be one anytime soon, at least not in the US of A. Americans don’t want gay marriage, let alone gay representatives.
Even if an openly gay candidate were to run, it’s hard to know how he could leverage his identity as effectively as Obama. The first African-American president-elect took his identity and ran with it, using his biracial blackness as an effective metaphor for change.
Gay men, on the other hand, have always had a twisted relationship to their own identity, knowing full well that the price of power was self-denial. There have always been gay kings, prime ministers and other rulers, but usually only in private.
Where gay men have emerged from the shadows — often kicking and screaming — they’ve often looked remarkably like their oppressors. Especially American gay politicians. Think of Larry Craig and Mark Foley, of the washrooms and pages scandals respectively. They were so “white” they might as well have been playing the back nine at the local country club.
From a PR point of view “gay” reads as one of two things. Either boringly irrelevant— “We’re just like everyone else!” — or scarily weird — sexual deviants and adventurers. Either way it’s not a political asset.
Even if you could figure out a way to milk your identity, you’d still have to convince people that your candidacy was worthwhile and the recent history of gay lib suggests otherwise. If gays have improved their legal lot in recent years, it’s been largely in spite of politicians, not because of them.
Any politician who aspires to high office has to move toward the centre and that means ditching policies that might upset the mainstream. Even the supposedly liberal Obama has cushioned his sometimes pro-gay remarks with an outspoken opposition to gay marriage. How much more accommodating would a gay candidate have to be in order to convince voters he was just one of them?
As a result the truly radical work of the last three decades has mostly been the work of lawyers, not voters or legislators. Whether it’s pensions, spousal rights or marriage, the groundbreaking decisions have come from the courts.
In Canada a series of provincial court decisions paved the way for the passage of federal same-sex marriage legislation in 2005. The pattern in the US has been much the same. State supreme courts in Massachussetts, California and Connecticut have ruled in favour of same-sex marriage.
The fact that many judicial decisions have been overruled by referendums, legislation or public opinion doesn’t obviate their importance. They may be fragile — and any judicial decision not supported by broad-based public opinion will be — but they suggest the importance of extrapolitical manoeuvres. The courts have gone where the legislatures haven’t dared and in the process they’ve made the conventional political process look either irrelevant or gormless. Why bother to run for office if you can accomplish your goals more expeditiously elsewhere?
A messianic campaign like Obama’s demands both a rallying image and a heartfelt belief in the process. It’s hard to imagine a gay candidate gathering either.