The bridge in David Remnick’s biography of Barack Obama, “The Bridge” ( Knopf, 2010) is the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, a holy site for the Civil Rights Movement. Here, Rep. John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr. and brave marchers were gassed and beaten by Alabama troopers, decades later revisited by Barack Obama.
No significant strand in Obama’s rise to the presidency is omitted from this nearly 600-page book, except one. “The Bridge” has been thoroughly de-gayed. In another decade, with another presidency, this might be a typical criticism. With this presidency, it is a lapse.
There is no mention of the role gays, their votes or their money played in the campaign. David Geffen? He is cited in passing, no mention that he is gay or was among the first “early money” Obama supporters. There is no mention of a gay issue in the presidential campaign such as “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” now at a roiling boil. There is no mention of the Matthew Shepard Act signed into law by President Obama in 2009. Remnick does report Alan Keyes slimed Mary Cheney in 2004.
“The Bridge” does not cover President Obama’s historic declaration in 2008 that he would be a “fierce advocate” for gay and lesbian Americans. The book examines the heated South Carolina primary contest between candidate Obama and Hillary Clinton. There is no reference to “ex-gay” Rev. Donnie McClurkin’s role in South Carolina Obama events. Obama said, “I strongly believe that African Americans and the LGBT community must stand together in the fight for equal rights.” Sounds like a bridge to me.
“The Bridge” omits the uproar caused by Rick Warren’s selection for the inaugural invocation. Remnick writes, “For the inaugural ceremony, Obama had invited Rick Warren to give the invocation, a gesture to mainstream evangelicals, but surely the most moving performance on the podium, besides Obama’s own somber address, was the final benediction.” How do you not mention the controversy about this selection, given Warren’s support for Proposition 8 in California?
Lawrence Goldyn, a professor of Obama’s at Occidental College in 1979 is discussed as openly gay and an early influence. This calls to mind Bill Clinton’s autobiography, a de-gayed classic, in which Clinton mentions an openly gay friend at Oxford in the 1960s but somehow fails to mention David Mixner, a key player in his rise to the presidency. Steve Hildebrand, the gay deputy national campaign director for the Obama campaign, is mentioned several times, but never identified as gay or a bridge to a vast gay community in historic transition.
“The Bridge” cites James Baldwin 10 times, even in the frontispiece, without mentioning Baldwin as a black and gay voice in the civil rights movement. It was a cruel time: according to Gore Vidal, President Kennedy joked about Baldwin as “Martin Luther Queen.”
“The Bridge” is a first draft of history that writes gays out. In the past, this has been accepted. Today, perceptive readers ask, “why the omission?”
There are lots of spirits associated with Selma. One is Bayard Rustin’s. Rustin was an openly gay founding strategist of the civil rights movement. It was Rustin who studied in India Ghandi’s non-violence. It was Rustin who counseled King before the march across the Pettus Bridge: “There is only one answer, the people who believe in non-violence are not now going to retreat.” Years later, in 1986, it was Rustin who spoke to students about the direct line from Montgomery to Stonewall.
Bayard Rustin could make that connection. James Baldwin lived that connection. In remarks, Barack Obama has made the connection, too, and that is maddening for a lot of people who supported him. But David Remnick’s “bridge?” It is not there for gay Americans.
Charles Francis is the founder of the Kameny Papers Project. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.