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Learning better and doing better: Barack Obama’s homophobia

Former President Obama’s admission in his memoir that he used homophobic slurs as a teen is an example of a generation’s journey.

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Former President Barack Obama, shown here in a pause while delivering a statement on the Supreme Court ruling saying states cannot deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2015, stated in his newly published memoirs that he regrets the homophobic views of his younger years
Photo credit should read MOLLY RILEY/AFP via Getty Images

“When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” 1 Corinthians 13:11, New Living Translation

Regardless if you subscribe to a system of faith or not, the wisdom of this piece of scripture resonates for most people. The actions we take as we are growing into ourselves, as foolish and immature as they maybe, can be tempered by experience, wisdom, and knowledge. We learn better. We do better.

On November 18, former President Barack Obama put forth an example of when he did learn better, leading to doing better for LGBTQ people in his time in office. In his newly published memoir, A Promised Land, Obama talked about locker-room homophobic slurs thrown by him as a teen growing up in the 1970s.

President Barack Obama’s Memoir “A Promised Land” Goes On Sale Ahead Of Holiday Season Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

A man who became the most forward-thinking chief executive on LGBTQ issues in our nation’s history wrote candidly:

“Like many teenage boys in those years, my friends and I sometimes threw around words like ‘fag’ or ‘gay’ at each other as casual put-downs – callow attempts to fortify our masculinity and hide our insecurities.” — quote from A Promised Land

Now they are definitely going to be those who will say that Obama may get a “woke pass” because of these revelations. Others may use this to further demonize the former President or try to diminish his accomplishments. Such is the discourse of our current run-and-gun, shoot-first, TwitbookIstaTikTok social media era.

But, I’d like to ask most of us who grew up in the 1970s, or in my case those confusing 1980s where androgyny, gender and homophobia met at some awkward intersection and the letters “A-I-D-S” added a large spectre of fear, a question: Were any of us without sin?

Ronald Reagan Wearing Cowboy Hat
Square jaw. High and tight. What some wanted the 1980s to be.

In the 1980s, I saw the cross-cutting cleavages. On one hand, it was the era of Ronald Reagan, Rambo, “Red Dawn” and the idea of a brawny, manly, muscled, more “traditional” America. Yet at the same time, there where the wild images coming out something called MTV.

Photo of PRINCE
Purple and sequins. What others wanted the 1980s to be.
Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

We were red-blooded, American, and poofy-haired running so far away. We were also Prince in his royal badness finery. We were Michael Jackson coiffed in curls and chart dominance. We were andro, and David Bowie, and Adam Ant. We pulled up to the bumper and were hungry like the wolf, and oh yeah, don’t forget that Frankie said ‘RELAX”!

In the middle were millions of kids like myself. I came of age in that era, and I would dare say that if that the grown person I am now met 12-year-old me, or if 16-year-old me met me today, I would almost expect that young kid to respond with something homophobic and/or transphobic. Could I expect anything more of a kid whose references growing up included tropes in movies like Norman Is That You?, Partners, or comedy characters like Flip Wilson as “Geraldine”?

Eddie Murphy On Stage At MSG
Eddie Murphy, shown here on tour in 1987, recently called much of his anti-gay material from that era as “cringey”, but will not apologize for it, saying it was the mood of the times when it was performed.
Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

My youth was a generation fueled by Eddie Murphy’s iconic stand-up performances of the decade. Think about his jokes about the growing AIDS crisis on his 1983 HBO special “Delirious”. Consider the follow ups in his 1988 concert film “Raw”. In recent years, he has shown a small measure of contrition for those performances and called some of them “cringey”.

In the discourse of the times, the letters “LGBTQ” was seen by many as a synonym for “AIDS.” The 1980s-era hearsay surrounding HIV and AIDS seems far-fetched now. In that decade, fallacies about how the disease spread were considered fact, and real facts were too often ignored. The official indifference to the AIDS crisis by the Reagan Administration then mirrors a sizeable portion of the Trump Administration’s antagonism toward the LGBTQ community now.

Added to those misconceptions was a massive gap by straight people in the understanding of LGBTQ people of that time, based again on hearsay and fallacies. Being gay or lesbian was seen as a rather New York-L.A.-San Francisco thing, and even in those places, you were vilified outside of The Castro, WeHo or Greenwich Village.

AUG 14 1988, AUG 15 1988; Members of Act Up, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power demonstrate outside
ACT-UP protesters take pointed shots at then-President Ronald Reagan and his policy on AIDS, or lack thereof
Photo By Jerry Cleveland/The Denver Post via Getty Images

In much of the hinterland beyond, many lived in quiet desperation and survival silence. Being in this community was demonized by the anti-gay crusaders of the era. Being outed could cost you a job, a place to live, or a job in a school. It was legal to fire someone LGBTQ in most of the nation then, a situation that has improved markedly now, but has not been totally eliminated.

Any potential role model in government, business, entertainment, sports, with few exceptions, was at best an “open secret” or worse completely closeted, even up to their death. Many young LGBTQ people were perhaps on the street or worse, or suffering in silence in the shopping malls and the classroom halls. We weren’t cool, so we were cast out. Many of us, whether we actually were or presumed to be, chose to hide, deny and play our role — to survive. I know. I was one of them who did so to survive.

“Once I got to college and became friends with fellow students and professors who were openly gay, though, I realized the overt discrimination and hate they were subject to, as well as the loneliness and self-doubt that the dominant culture imposed on them. I felt ashamed of my past behaviour — and learned to do better.” — quote from A Promised Land

Former President Obama wrote in his memoirs that he seen a same sex-loving couple in his own family. A great aunt and her partner who she termed as “a good friend”. It was experiences as an undergrad at Columbia, and perhaps as a law student at Harvard and beyond that began to reshape his view beyond those he termed as, “hadn’t always been particularly enlightened.”.

The first out gay person I met was as a journalism student at Northwestern. My own coming out was many years down the road, but my awakening and education into allyship began with that exposure in my college years and extended into my working life as a journalist.

I’d wager that for many who came of age in the last three decades of the 20th century such a process was similar. From classrooms, workplaces, and a mass media that was slowly opening up in the 1990s, the exposure yielded future reevaluations similar to Obama’s. The chance of someone close to us coming out, the way his great aunt did not or could not, grew greater year after year.

It is easy for someone to take a side as support or opposition when LGBTQ people are in the abstract. The situation changes drastically when such issues touch your life in the concrete.

“Change your heart, look around you. Change your heart, it will astound you.” — “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” by Korgis (1980)

Many of us did hold beliefs that today’s Generation Z and Millennial crowd would dub “problematic”, and they’d be right. I had them right along with a vast majority of others of my generation and I don’t deny it, and I don’t use the struggles I had with myself growing up to excuse it.

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President Obama signing an Executive Order to protect LGBTQ employees from workplace discrimination. July 21, 2014
Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

Some will look at Obama’s words cynically. That is their right. For me, I see Obama’s admission as part of the work to learn better. That work is where the difference is. In the case of Barack Obama it was the difference that led to marriage equality, a federal hate crimes law, non-discrimination protection for LGBTQ people in the workplace , and open service in the military for LGBTQ people.

For others it may have to be the difference in a family member being accepted or cast out. For me, that work was part of the difference in my being here writing for Outsports, and not becoming a suicide statistic. We learned better. We did better.

The former president and millions of others changed their hearts, looked around, and put away childish things.