What's Behind the Right's 'Obama Is Gay' Conspiracy
President Barack Obama is seen through the viewfinder of a video camera as he speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
You probably know by now that President Obama is a Muslim who professes socialism and that he was born in Africa, which makes him ineligible to occupy our highest office. But here is something you may not know: Obama is gay. Not only is he gay; he frequented gay bath houses in Chicago along with his former chief of staff and current Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel. And not only did he frequent those bath houses; he was under the influence of a “transgender nanny” when he lived as a boy in Indonesia. Plus, he was “married” to his Pakistani roommate while attending Occidental College (one theorist says that the ring he wore at the time was a “homosexual symbol for ‘women stay away’”); had a cocaine-fueled romance with a right-wing activist and ex-convict named Larry Sinclair in 1999 (who, of course, wrote a book about it); and orchestrated the murders of another gay lover and two gay associates from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church just before the Iowa caucuses in 2008—all of which helps to explain why he married, in the words of one Obama investigator, a “mannish wife with big, muscular arms.”
These stories have been standard fare in right-wing circles and on right-wing websites for years. Google “Obama gay rumors” and you get—hold on!—15.5 million hits, most of them crackpots like conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, one of the original Swift Boaters, who interviewed a man who knew Obama at Occidental and described the future president’s relationship with his roommate as a “close, intimate emotional attachment,” even though the only evidence for that attachment was the fact that “I saw them standing very close to one another.” Or a blogger named Kevin DuJan, who reports that Reggie Love, the former basketball player who served as Obama’s “body man,” was actually the president’s lover, and that it is “quite clear that in the years ahead Barack Obama will replace Elton John as the reigning party queen, gay icon.” (DuJan also says he expects that Obama will retire to Honolulu after his defeat by Romney, where, “draped in colorful muumuus, with a retinue of hunky shirtless Secret Service studs around him, Barack Obama will find himself in a new kind of paradise no doubt.”) Or right-wing journalist Wayne Madsen, whose eponymous newsletter is the source on Obama’s visits to the bath house and who revealed how Obama used basketball pickup games to pick up men. Obama, Madsen says, had homosexual trysts with Representative Artur Davis, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Senate majority leader Bill Frist! Who knew? Meanwhile, Paul Cameron of the Family Research Institute, another right-wing organization dedicated to protecting the country from the likes of Obama, told a radio audience on VCY Crosstalk that while “I’m not sure about the claims by various people who have reported that Obama has at least participated at times with them in homosexual acts, this [support of gay marriage] certainly lends some credence.” Case closed.
Citing a remark by Fox News host Greg Gutfeld that “Obama is now out of the closet” after the president announced his support for gay marriage, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum blogged at the Daily Beast, “You cannot ‘get’ Gutfeld’s joke unless you ‘get’ that a large part of his audience ardently believes that Obama is in fact gay, that his marriage is a sham, and that Mrs. Obama leads a life of Marie Antoinette–like extravagance to compensate for her husband’s neglect while he disports himself with his personal aides.”
But as much as the most extreme tales of the president’s supposed homosexuality have been confined to the crannies of the Internet, mainstream Republicans routinely invoke the idea that Obama is, if not exactly gay, then less of a man. When a loud noise was heard during Mike Huckabee’s address to the National Rifle Association, the former Arkansas governor quipped that it was Barack Obama diving for the floor after someone pointed a gun at him (because, presumably, the president is a sissy). Similarly, when John Edwards endorsed Obama in 2008, conservative columnist Kathleen Parker joked, “Well, at least they didn’t kiss.” And after the death of the American ambassador to Libya, Sarah Palin weighed in with: “If [Obama] doesn’t have a ‘big stick’ to carry, maybe it’s time for him to grow one.”
Of course, there’s nothing unusual about the wing-nuttery fabricating stories to rally their fellow nuts, and nothing unusual about the homophobes among them, especially on the religious right, attacking Obama as gay. But the persistent charges of his unmanliness—as if all gay men are unmanly and all women fainthearted—are part of a skein of Republican accusations and innuendoes against Democrats that goes back decades. It isn’t always that Democrats are gay, exactly. Gay becomes a proxy for effeminacy so that Republicans, in their antediluvian view of the world, can present themselves as tough he-men, Democrats as weak girls. Or, in conservative commentator Jude Wanniski’s terms, Republicans are the “Daddy Party,” while Democrats are the “Mommy Party.” That is not intended as a compliment to the latter. Indeed, “feminized” is one of the dirtiest words in the Republican lexicon.
Long ago, the GOP apparently calculated that this was a great way to appeal to male voters, especially white male voters, who, until recently, made up roughly 40 percent of the electorate. The GOP aimed at a tradition of machismo, bluster, saber-rattling and muscle-flexing. It assumed that white males revere warriors, prefer action to talk, love the idea of shooting first and asking questions later; their movie heroes are John Wayne and GOP poster boy Clint Eastwood. These assumptions may have been based on stereotypes, but they seem to have worked. The Democratic Party has won the white male vote only twice since 1944—in 1960, when John Kennedy beat Nixon by just 0.2 percent among that group, and in Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide, the only time since Roosevelt that Democrats won more than 50 percent of that demographic cohort. In short, if only white men voted, there would have been just two Democratic presidents since 1944. Not only that: every election save 1976, when Jimmy Carter eked out 47 percent of those voters, would have been a Republican landslide.
But even that may understate the extent to which Republicans have increasingly become the party of white men and the extent to which they seem to have sacrificed the female vote, especially the votes of single and minority women. According to a recent Pew Center survey, the GOP lead among white male voters has doubled, from 11 percent in 2008 to 22 percent in 2012. Men now constitute 52 percent of Republican voters according to the Pew survey, virtually all of them white, even though men make up less than 50 percent of the general population. By contrast, women constitute 57 percent of the Democratic vote, according to Pew. One might conclude that whatever other divisions there are between the parties, there is a gaping pink (Democrat) and blue (Republican) one or, to account for the racial component among those Republican voters, “pink and azure,” azure being a lighter, milkier shade of blue like the sky.
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It is impossible to say whether the Republican feminization of Democrats is a cause of this chasm or a result of it. There are obviously many factors at play. But it is certainly true that even as the white male vote as a percentage of the electorate has declined precipitously, the Republican proportion of that vote has steadily grown, from the upper fortieth percentile for Dewey in 1948 to the upper fiftieth percentile for Eisenhower to a consistent sixtieth percentile since 1980. The only disruptions in that trend are Carter’s 1976 election, when Ford ceded some of those white Southern male votes, and the two Clinton elections, in which the tough-talking bantam billionaire Ross Perot siphoned off a large chunk of those voters.
The originator of the tactic to characterize Democrats as pansies and sissies may have been Wisconsin’s infamous junior senator, Joseph McCarthy. Though McCarthy’s stock in trade was wild accusations against alleged communists in the Democratic administrations of Roosevelt and Truman, he also brandished another, less remembered weapon: homosexual baiting, on the pretext that communists were often gay. This conflation of “treasonous” with “Democrats” and “gay” has proven to be a powerful one that seems to have had more legs than anti-communism by itself. As David Johnson documents in his history of political gay bashing, The Lavender Scare, once McCarthy publicized the accusations, his fellow Republicans and their allies in the right-wing press joyously leapt in. “Information is accumulating which shows that perversion has been so kindly regarded in the New Deal cult as to amount to a characteristic of that administration,” wrote the rabidly reactionary columnist Westbrook Pegler in June 1950. Along the same lines, Republican Senator William Jenner described the Truman administration as the “Fairy Deal.”
But the subtler message wasn’t that Democrats were gay. Again, it was that Democrats were like gays—that is, in the bizarre Republican equation, they were womanly, incapable of standing up to communists. Describing how McCarthy would deal with Stalin versus how the Democrats dealt with him, one of the senator’s aides said, “The two would talk man to man, not like a lot of pansy diplomats.”
The “pansy” in 1952 was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate and a former State Department official—one of those Ivy League–educated boys in striped pants that McCarthyite Republicans so reviled. Stevenson was divorced and had a reputation as a womanizer, but that didn’t stop Republicans from hurling innuendo. According to Stevenson biographer Porter McKeever, an Eisenhower supporter actively spread the rumor that Stevenson was gay, and someone even sent out an FBI impersonator to interview a friend of a Stevenson staff member about the governor’s alleged homosexuality. When Stevenson challenged Eisenhower again in 1956, gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who had traveled with Eisenhower during the campaign, compared Stevenson to transsexual Christine Jorgenson on his election night broadcast and said the election of Stevenson would put a “woman in the White House.” In four years, Stevenson had gone from being gay to being a woman.
It was much harder to stigmatize Kennedy, a war hero, or Johnson, a Texan, as effeminate, though their fear of being branded as such forced them into contortions. Johnson privately fretted that if he were to abandon Vietnam, the Republicans would question his manhood. But even as Republicans whispered about the Democrats’ lack of manliness, they managed to turn it into a loud metaphor—one in which government was, in Reagan’s words, “our national nanny” and diplomacy was another form of feminine surrender. In effect, the conservative message was not just that government was bad and that a less than bellicose foreign policy was feckless, but that government and diplomacy were emasculating. As Wall Street Journal columnist John Mihalic said of Jimmy Carter, he “didn’t like to threaten or rebuke. He wore sweaters and avoided the trappings of power. He even kissed Brezhnev!” All of which, he wrote, revealed Carter’s “true feminine spirit.”
And so it has been ever since. Michael Dukakis was featured in a right-wing comic book titled Magical Mike in which Dukakis starred as “Sheriff Pansy,” who pranced around in a dress. George H.W. Bush beat Dukakis among men by thirteen points, among white men by nearly thirty. Even President Reagan joined in; after Dukakis endorsed several of his military policies, Reagan quipped, “We haven’t seen such a radical transformation since Dustin Hoffman played Tootsie.” Given his womanizing, Clinton couldn’t be tarred as either gay or feminine, so the Republicans used another tactic: he was portrayed as having been emasculated by Hillary, “the Lady Macbeth of Little Rock,” as The American Spectator called her during the 1992 campaign. Clinton lost the male vote by nearly the same margin as Dukakis and received only 36 percent of the white male vote.
What makes this feminization even more effective is the way the media—and not only the conservative media—pick it up, perhaps because it gives them a neat dialectic that turns every campaign into a movie, strong against weak, which is what the media are always trying to do. No one has latched on to this more tenaciously than the cop’s daughter, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, even as she has deplored the “nasty Republican habit of portraying opponents as less than fully masculine.” So, in Dowd’s words, Al Gore is “so feminized and diversified and ecologically correct, he’s practically lactating”; John Edwards is a “Breck Girl”; Obama is “Obambi,” who preens like a “46-year-old virgin” and is “hung up on being seen as thoughtful,” even as he fears “being seen as a ‘dumb blond’”—which isn’t all that different from Ann Coulter calling Gore a “total fag” on Hardball or Edwards a “faggot” at a conservative conclave. As for John Kerry, the war hero, the Republicans and the mainstream media quickly managed to make him seem French and effete against a swaggering cowboy Bush. And it was no surprise when a Newsweek cover story cast the 2008 election as a contest between beer (McCain) and arugula (Obama).
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The problem for Republicans is that while their sixty years of macho posturing and Democrat-baiting may have paid huge electoral dividends in the past, the demographics are now running strongly against them. The proportion of white voters in the electorate is falling rapidly—it shrank from 91 percent in 1948 to 70 percent in 2004—and the proportion of white male voters is plummeting even more rapidly. Pretty soon there’s not going to be much azure for the Republicans to capture.
But the dirty little secret of political feminization that borders on misogyny may be that it was never entirely about politics; it was about fear. No one would accuse the Republican Party or its white male supporters of having a massive case of sexual repression, but the passion with which the party has prosecuted its feminizing agenda, as well as the ardor with which married blue-collar white males have embraced the party, even against their own economic self-interest, does prompt one to wonder if it might be a case of “Methinks the party doth protest too much.”
The point is that even though machismo and feminization may no longer be good politics, the tactic isn’t likely to disappear, either electorally or as a way of governing, because the Republicans can’t help themselves. They have been playing this game so long that it’s now in their DNA, which is why every conservative crackpot can’t wait to tell you that Barack Obama is gay.
Our blogger Ben Adler has the lowdown on “Where Crazy Conservative Memes Are Invented” (September 25).