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
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT