Will The United States Ever Elect An Openly Gay President?

on June 20 2013 5:52 AM

Three years ahead of the next U.S. presidential election, the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is likely to play an important role in American politics. Polls suggest that an increasing number of people in this country support gay rights as well as granting homosexuals and lesbians the right to marry and adopt children.

Nonetheless, very few politicians are openly gay and there has never been an openly homosexual president. Around the world, in recent times, there have been two openly gay heads of government -- Johanna Sigurdardottir, the former prime minister of Iceland, and Elio Di Rupo, the current prime minister of Belgium. (Of course, many other prominent politicians have been “outed” while in office or after they quit politics, while still others, like former British Prime Minister Edward Heath, are widely believed to have been gay.)

International Business Times spoke to an expert about U.S. politics to discuss the history of gays in Washington, D.C., and the likelihood of gays increasing their exposure in the American political sphere.

Jamie Chandler is a political scientist at Hunter College in New York City.

IB TIMES: Christine Quinn, if she is elected, will become the first openly gay mayor of New York City; while Barney Frank was one of the few openly gay congressmen. Do you foresee a time when the U.S. will elect an openly gay president?

CHANDLER: Since 1982 there have been several openly gay congressmen, several ran for office as openly gay (either as new candidates, or as incumbents), but others were “outed” or forced to come out after their sexuality became public. Some of them include:

Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., acknowledged his homosexuality in 1982 in response to a scandal that revealed that he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old male congressional page.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., came out in 1987, [but soon it became public that] he had hired and housed a male prostitute.

In the mid-1990s, Congressman Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., was outed on the House floor by Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif., during a debate about federal funding for gay-friendly school curriculum. Gunderson was the only Republican to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., came out in 1996 after gay rights activists outed him over his hypocrisy for being gay and voting for the Defense of Marriage Act.

Congressman Jared Polis, D-Colo., who was the first congressional candidate to campaign as an openly gay man [as a non-incumbent in his initial election], was elected in 2008. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who was elected in 2012, was both the first openly gay woman, and the first openly gay person to be elected to the US Senate.

Also elected in 2012 were Mark Pocan, D-Wis, Mark Takano, D-Calif, the first openly bisexual representative, Kyrsten Sinema. D-Ariz, and Sean Patrick Maloney, D-NY. David Cicilline, D-RI was elected in 2010. A number of other representatives came out after their terms ended.

An openly gay president will be elected at some point in the future, but the time horizon could be between 10 and 20 years.  This is because of a number of factors.

First, there will need to be more openly gay candidates elected as governors. Governors have a higher likelihood of being elected to the presidency than senators or congressman, and it’s very difficult for mayors to make the jump directly.

Second, it will take time for Americans who are currently in their 20s and early 30s to change the attitudes of both political parties. This is more so the case with Republicans but also with Democrats. Even though Democrats make strong plays to the gay community during their political campaigns, many have demonstrated mixed records toward gay rights while in office. Indeed, it took President Barack Obama four years to come out in support of gay marriage, and recently a number of moderate Democratic senators refused to support an amendment to the immigration reform bill that would have given married same-sex bi-national partners the same immigration rights as married heterosexual couples.

Despite the recent strides the LGBT movement has made as it relates to same-sex marriage, there continues to be a number of other civil rights issues that need to be resolved (e.g. job discrimination, hate crimes, allowing gay couples to adopt, and so forth).

Politics is slow to change, but with generational and public opinion shifts, more openly gay candidates will win elected office.

IB TIMES: Rumors abound that Presidents Abraham Lincoln and James Buchanan were homosexual, although it’s never been proven. Were politicians’ private lives simply not discussed those days?

CHANDLER: One of the mistakes people make when they look back on history is that they interpret historical events in modern terms. The term “openly gay” is a recent invention, and came out of the gay rights movement that began in the late 1960s. 

There was tremendous pressure on gay people during the 1950s to remain closeted about their sexuality. This began to change in the 1970s as the sexual revolution spurred people to live in the open about their partner preferences. 

Gay life in the 19th century was completely different. First, the term “homosexual” didn’t even exist. That concept came about in the 1940s as sexuality studies became more scientific. Second, people often shared beds together and lived in crowded conditions. Abraham Lincoln shared a bed with a male friend and wrote about his friendship with him in affectionate terms, but there’s no proof that Lincoln and his friend were in a sexual relationship. He was married and had a family, so whatever his friendship was, it wasn’t used as a campaign attack.

President Buchanan had a “special friendship” with William Rufus King, who became vice president under Franklin Pierce. The two lived together and attended Washington functions together. But whatever was occurring behind closed doors didn’t make it to the larger public discourse. Within Washington circles, however, President Andrew Jackson referred to the two as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy,” 19th century terms for effeminate men.

Historians are divided on the true nature of Buchanan’s sexual orientation. Some argue that he was gay while others say that he was asexual or celibate.

IB TIMES: In the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson’s presidential candidacy was apparently ruined by an FBI leak about an alleged homosexual encounter he had. If this was true, how could Stevenson possibly have hoped to launch a serious bid for the White House?

CHANDLER: Stevenson was a powerful Illinois governor who was always in the cross-hairs of J. Edgar Hoover, then FBI director. Hoover kept detailed files on Stevenson, and a number of Illinois Democratic politicians. Hoover believed Stevenson to be sympathetic to the Communist movement. The 1950s was the time of McCarthyism, so many liberal politicians were accused as such. 

Hoover’s allegation that Stevenson was “queer” was part of a smear campaign, and had no bearing on Stevenson’s presidential campaign; he won the 1952 and 1956 presidential Democratic nominations. Stevenson had a very serious bid for the White House, but lost to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who had strong name recognition because he was a World War II war hero. 

IB TIMES: Historically, have gays been discouraged from running for high office in the U.S. because of the public embarrassment or because they would present a “security risk” with respect to enemy nations?

CHANDLER: There has been a long history where homosexuality was seen to disqualify people from federal employment. After the Civil Service Act of 1881 was passed, one of the hiring regulations was that employees should not be hired or should be fired if they demonstrate “conduct unbecoming.” Things became really problematic for gays during the 1950s. Sen. Joseph McCarthy moved the issue of gay federal employees to the top of the agenda. He believed that there was a “homosexual underground” aiding the “Communist conspiracy.” He formed a Senate subcommittee to examine the Truman administration’s employment policies toward hiring homosexuals. This subcommittee eventually compelled President Eisenhower to issue Executive Order 10450, which barred openly gay people from federal employment and defined them as a security risk.

Many believe that a gay person engaged in clandestine operations would be vulnerable to divulging secret information to the enemy. Thousands of gays lost their federal jobs or were unable to get government-contracting jobs because of it, and it was very difficult for a gay person to build a career in the intelligence community. As it relates to candidates for national political office, it’s the combination of this government view, coupled with unfriendly public opinion toward gay people, up until recently, that has deterred many from running from office.

Openly gay candidates not only need to appeal to voters, which were largely unfriendly, but also to donors, who were unlikely to give money to a candidate who had little chance to win because of his or her identity.

IB TIMES: Does the media (in U.S. and U.K.) make it easier for gay politicians to "come out” now or do they make it worse for them?

CHANDLER: It’s increasingly easier for gay politicians to come out of the closet in both the U.S. and the U.K. However, some remain deterred from doing it. Many have personal reasons for not going public, partly because they believe that they wouldn’t be accepted and also because they want to avoid the media scrutiny of their personal lives. 

There are many closeted gay politicians serving in office today who don’t want to come out because they don’t want to jeopardize their re-election chances. It really depends on the situation, and how the media treats the person. 

The media is less friendly toward closeted gays who are “outed” because of personal activities that contradict their political stances, especially when those personal activities are illicit. Former Sen. Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho, is a good example. His political views were strongly anti-gay, but in 2007 he was arrested in an airport men’s restroom for lewd behavior. The media put him under intense scrutiny. Craig denied the charges, and firmly said he wasn’t gay, but he decided not to run for re-election because of the media backlash.

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