Last Wednesday, President Obama endorsed a statement from the United Nations that calls for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality — a declaration that, under George Bush, we were the only western nation not to sign.
I heard this on NPR as I dressed for work. With one sock on and the other still in my hand, I sat there on the edge of my bed and cried.
For better or worse, Ethan is getting used to finding his mother listening to the news in tears. It started with Barack Obama’s beautiful, resounding campaign speeches and continues, daily it seems, as our president changes a law or takes some other major step to benefit human rights.
Ending torture at Guantánamo Bay, protecting agencies that perform abortions, spearheading plans for affordable healthcare, creating a timetable to bring our troops home from Iraq, working to rebuild our fallen economy. And he’s been on the job all of two months!
“I can’t get used to this,” I said to Ethan, as I sliced strawberries for our breakfast. “A president who understands what’s important; a president who cares.”
Ethan responded with his tried-and-true George Bush imitation. “Heh, heh. Better lock those gay people up before they hurt someone. Say, what does this red button marked Nu-q-lar do?”
The next day, President Obama appeared on The Tonight Show. Joking with Jay Leno about his own questionable bowling skills, he quipped that he should be in the Special Olympics.
“I heard some people in the disabled community are pretty upset,” my friend Julia told me. She asked how I felt about it.
I shrugged. “It was a very human slip, a tiny blip in a very large, inclusive picture.”
Julia grinned. She loves Obama as much as I do. “Human is an excellent quality in a world leader.”
I thought back to the speech on election night when Obama called his victory “[the] answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled.”
“President Obama can play on my team anytime,” I said.
Ever since the inauguration, I take every opportunity I can to say those two words aloud. President Obama. The truth is, until the very last moment on November 4th, I didn’t really believe it could happen. Despite how promising the numbers looked, despite how beloved Barack Obama seemed to be, despite the fact that the GOP made mistakes in their campaign the size of . . . well, Alaska, I was afraid racism would rear its despicable head and leave us right where we were, protecting the interests of the privileged and fighting an unjust war for an indefinite number of years.
I’m still pinching myself that that isn’t what happened, that instead we came together, one nation, despite our differences, to elect the best candidate for the job.
“People make too big a deal over that fact that Obama is black,” Ethan had said on the first dizzying morning after the election.
“It’s a huge deal,” I told him.
He looked at me, surprised. Was this his same mom who always said the color of a person’s skin shouldn’t matter?
It occurred to me that, though Ethan could understand on some level the leap we made by electing an African-American president, he couldn’t really know the enormity of the gap we had to cross to get there. After all, for him the civil rights movement only exists in history books.
“Barack Obama didn’t win because he is black,” I said. “He won because he will be an amazing leader. What’s huge, though, is that he didn’t lose because he’s black.”
“But do you think he’ll do a better job because of it?” Ethan asked.
My immediate response was to say no, that of course it’s what’s inside that makes us who we are. But I stopped myself, realizing that Barack Obama’s heritage is just as much inside of him as out. As a woman with a disability, I know that the struggles that come with being in the minority can be among our best teachers.
“In some ways, yes. He can comprehend a lot of things more fully because of his background.”
“Jeez, Mom.” Ethan rolled his eyes, noticing I was tearing up again.
“I think it’s that I’m so relieved,” I said, attempting to explain my weepiness, not just to him but to myself. An analogy came to mind that I didn’t share aloud. It was like when Richard and I divorced. It wasn’t until the marriage was over that I could look squarely at just how hard that relationship had been. Likewise, now that we have a president who is intelligent and humane, I see how harsh these last eight years were. True, Obama has arguably inherited more problems than any president before him, but he’s hopeful about what can be done, and has so quickly rolled up his sleeves.
“You know Winston?” Ethan asked me.
I nodded, slightly thrown by the sudden change in subject. Winston is a muddy white Shih Tzu who lives on the floor above us.
“They had to take him to the vet to get artificial tears because his eyes dried up.” Ethan handed me a tissue. “I’m going to have to do that for you if you keep crying through Obama’s whole presidency.”
I blew my nose. “Hail to the chief,” I said.