Skip to main content

White House is finally a welcoming place for gay people

By Nicholas F. Benton, Special to CNN
June 18, 2012 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
 President Barack Obama hosts a reception in honor of national Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month in the East Room of the White House on Friday.
President Barack Obama hosts a reception in honor of national Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month in the East Room of the White House on Friday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • As a child, Nicholas Benton was fascinated with White House and presidents
  • He gave up his dream of running for the presidency when he came out
  • Benton was invited to attend Friday's White House reception for LGBT community
  • He says it's now possible for a gay person to think realistically of running for president

Editor's note: Nicholas F. Benton is the founder, owner and editor of the Falls Church News-Press, a weekly newspaper in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. This year, he was the recipient of the OUTstanding Virginian award presented by Equality Virginia.

(CNN) -- As my companion and I passed through security on a gorgeous Washington afternoon Friday, invited by President Barack Obama to join hundreds of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks at the White House for a reception celebrating LGBT Pride Month, I couldn't help but reflect back.

The White House and I go back a long way. In the 1950s, as a young gay boy growing up in a small fishing town on the southern coast of California, I had, for some seemingly inexplicable reason, an intense fascination with all things White House, and especially its occupants, our American presidents.

On Halloween in the third grade, my mom crafted for me a magnificent costume of Thomas Jefferson, and I missed that I'd won a prize because my cotton wig impaired my hearing. At major family gatherings, I'd dress up in what became known as my "presidentials" and entertained relatives by my deft ability to name all the presidents in order, right up to and including Dwight Eisenhower.

Nicholas Benton
Nicholas Benton

So, the idea of growing up to be president some day was implanted in my head, and it became the source of great consternation for me when, in grad school in the late '60s as civil rights, feminist and anti-Vietnam War ferment was swelling, I ratified my own commitment to social justice by openly claiming my gay identity.

I burst out of the closet with a bang, co-founding the Berkeley, California, chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, for one thing. But with all that came the sad realization that, alas, I had to completely abandon my dream of ever becoming president.

Still, the White House beckoned me.

In the mid-1980s, I had an opportunity to represent an obscure and unhappy publication as its journalistic correspondent in the White House for a few years. I leaped at the chance, moving across the U.S. to be there, in the press room, almost daily. I didn't like who I worked for and I didn't like who was president at the time, but I loved the White House, especially on the few occasions when I was included among journalists invited to one of the many holiday parties held there.

LZ Granderson: The secret gay agenda

Ah, the East Room (where the formal news conferences were also held), the Blue Room, the Red Room and so forth! All the ponderous presidential portraits and artifacts chronicling the colorful history of the nation's chief executives.

But while there, I felt light years away. I was gay, and I kept it to myself in those days. I was an outsider granted a glimpse of what I'd cherished so intimately as a youth. The idea of being gay was allowed nowhere near the official corridors of power.

To the gay movement, it was a huge breakthrough when, in the 1990s, a president first uttered the word, "gay," in a nonderogatory or "as in happy" sense, in a major speech. President Bill Clinton later spoke at one of the first national dinners of the Human Rights Campaign in the late 1990s. Held at a hotel ballroom blocks from the White House, I was there. Hope for LGBT people was in the air.

Fast forwarding to last week, it was deeply moving to be back in the White House, finally not as a closeted journalist or anything other than an open and affirming public citizen.

Unlike the LGBT reception held there just a year earlier, this time there were women and men in military uniform, some holding hands with their same-sex partners, made possible only after the president led the overturning of don't ask, don't tell in the course of the past year.

Entering the East Room amid cheers to speak to us, President Barack Obama reaffirmed the commitment he'd made only weeks before to full support for gay marriage.

We have a president now who can say without hesitation, as he did Friday, "As long as I have the privilege of being your president, I promise you, you won't just have a friend in the White House, you will have a fellow advocate for an America where no matter what you look like or where you come from or who you love, you can dream big dreams and dream as openly as you want."

Thank you, Mr. President: You mean those kind of "big dreams" I had as a kid! There is no doubt in my mind now that there is some LGBT youngster in our land right now who will grow up to become president of the United States some day.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicholas Benton.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT