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Wayne Bessen

Where is the gay Jesse Jackson?
As the nail-biter of a presidential race becomes more uncertain, the only thing guaranteed is a good cry on Inauguration Day. Electing our first woman or black president will bring sobs of joy, just as the election of a Republican will usher in wallowing wails of woe.

However, there is one more issue that is worthy of tears, and that is how few Americans could imagine a gay president of the United States. At the age of 37, if I proclaimed that one day I would run for president, people would offer patronizing or quizzical looks, before they suggested a random drug test. They would say, “We won’t see a gay president in your lifetime.”

However, if John McCain wins the prize he will be inaugurated at the age of 71. If I ran for president at the same age as McCain, that would mean I could count on 34 more years of social change, which may be enough time for a gay or lesbian American to be a viable presidential candidate.

If this sounds implausible, consider that it was 34 years ago that homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders. The APA decision was only four years after the Stonewall riots. Since this time, we have lived through AIDS, passed a multitude of gay rights laws, have had openly gay members of Congress and witnessed same-sex marriage become a reality in Massachusetts.

Clearly, it is not inconceivable that in 34 years — 2042 — a gay person could theoretically become president. It is likely that our Barack Obama is now in grade school. This gifted gay individual will be charismatic and able to appeal to mainstream Americans to win the greatest prize in politics.

The question is, how are those of us who don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming president paving the way for this young man or woman to achieve his or her dreams?

In order for our Obama to fulfill his or her potential, it is essential that the LGBT movement run serious presidential candidates in the next election cycle. That’s right, “candidates” in the plural — meaning we run a Democrat and a Republican.

The Democrat would play the role of Jesse Jackson — a trailblazer that will lose badly, but earn respect and lay the groundwork for the future. This sacrificial lamb will be known as “the gay candidate,” so when our gay Obama is finally ready — he or she can transcend sexual orientation and win — or lose — on the merits.

It is also crucial we run a credible Republican, in order to articulate the case for gay rights in front of conservative audiences. This not only would make the other candidates uncomfortable in their gay bashing, but this candidate could serve as a role model.

However, as the old sports cliché goes, “if you stay on the sidelines, you aren’t in the game.” By not having a gay candidate run, we accede the field to all heterosexual candidates and we are therefore largely invisible. Now, I can understand not running a gay candidate this time around in the Democratic primary, since the field was already crowded with history makers. But in the future, this is unacceptable and we ought to aim for fair representation in the next election cycle.
The bottom line is that until we first have our Jesse Jackson, we will never have our Barack Obama. Just having an openly gay person onstage allows young people to dream and imagine a world of unlimited possibilities.

The LGBT political groups ought to make it a priority to find the best Republican and Democratic candidates to run next time around. Aside from the historical aspect, it would be amazing publicity. Each time a gay candidate walked on-stage to debate, it would be worth millions of dollars of free advertising for the LGBT movement. I can’t think of a better investment and use of our advocacy dollars.

There are 300 million people in America, so no one can credibly argue that we can’t find at least one gay or lesbian person up to the task. After all, you can’t convince me that Rep. Barney Frank or former Human Rights Campaign leader Elizabeth Birch can’t do a better job than Gary Bauer or Alan Keyes.

One stereotype is that gay people like theatre — so it is past time we come out from behind the curtain. By playing supporting on-stage roles in the next presidential election, our leaders can set the stage for our leading man or woman in the future.

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