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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights: Obama memoir addresses evolution on LGBTQ rights

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Promised Land, gay news, Washington Blade
President Barack Obama (Photo courtesy Crown)

‘A Promised Land’
By Barack Obama
c.2020, Crown
$45/768 pages

Most memoirs of politicians are pablum — ghost-written snooze-inducers. At best, good door-stops.

“A Promised Land,” former President Barack Obama’s new memoir, breaks that mold. Though it’s over 700 pages, you won’t be tempted to turn away from this, by turns, measured, moving, detailed, witty, and self-aware volume. The memoir, narrated by Obama, is a great listen (29 hours, 10 minutes) on Audible.

Unlike most politicos, Obama can write! Many of us ink-stained wretches would give anything to have his writing chops. Obama’s first book, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama’s critically acclaimed 1995 coming-of-age memoir, came out years before he was a player on the national political stage.

Like many, I knew some of the highlights of Obama’s life before I picked up “A Promised Land”: his spouse and best friend Michelle, his daughters, his dog Bo, his rapid rise from Illinois state senator to U.S. senator to president of the United States.

As a lesbian, I knew of the many things that Obama and his administration did to support LGBTQ rights – from issuing Pride proclamations to the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” At his last press conference, Obama called on Blade reporter Chris Johnson to ask a question. (Obama was the first U.S. president to call on a LGBTQ press reporter at a press conference.) No wonder many of us think of Obama as the “first gay president.”

If this memoir had been hacked out by a ghostwriter for a typical politico (even a queer-friendly politico), I’d probably just skim through it. But, because of Obama’s superb writing, the breadth of his thinking and the wide-ranging events of his administration (from his meetings with foreign leaders to the passage of the Affordable Care Act), I was hooked from the get-go on “A Promised Land.” The Republican opposition to his every move (no matter how bipartisan he tries to be) is an underlying theme.

“For a month, Michelle and I slept late, ate leisurely dinners, went for long walks, swam in the ocean, took stock,” Obama writes in the memoir’s preface of what life was like for him and Michelle after he left office in January 2017, “replenished our friendship, rediscovered our love, and planned for a less eventful but hopefully no less satisfying second act.”

No way could I stop reading after that!

“A Promised Land” is the first of two volumes. It begins with a preface in which Obama says he wants to give an “honest rendering” of the events that happened on his watch and ends with the death of Osama bin Laden.

The first third of the memoir is about his life before he becomes president. Here, Obama writes of his family, youth, college years, law school life, how he met Michelle, his time as a community organizer and political campaigns.

Obama writes personally about his evolving attitudes toward LGBTQ rights. He believes that the “American family” includes LGBTQ people and immigrants. “How could I believe otherwise, when some of the same arguments for their exclusion had so often been used to exclude those who looked like me?” Obama writes.

But, he doesn’t, he writes, dismiss those with differing views on queers and immigrants as bigots. He remembers that his own beliefs weren’t always so “enlightened.”

“I grew up in the 1970s, a time when LGBTQ life was far less visible to those outside the community,” Obama writes.

His Aunt Arlene, “felt obliged to introduce her partner of twenty years as ‘my close friend Marge’ whenever she visited us in Hawaii,” he recalls.

When Obama was a teen, he and his peers used anti-gay slurs. “And like many teenage boys in those years, my friends and I sometimes threw around words like ‘fag’ or ‘gay’ at each other as casual put downs,” Obama writes, “callow attempts to fortify our masculinity and hide our insecurities.”

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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights