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Did Obama Blow It? That Depends…

It depends on how you look at it. Admittedly, I was a bit over-stimulated by being in the media room during this weeks presidential forum (even though I was immediately reminded that I was not media, “new media” status notwithstanding). And I had just written that homophobia probably wouldn't be addressed, even though the forum kicked off with a kind of circle-jerk discussion about racism and racial discrimination. So I was stunned when Barrack Obama actually spoke the word “homophobia” while answering a question about the AIDS epidemic.

Tavis Smiley:  Senator Obama?

Barack Obama:  I think John's prescriptions are right. I would add the issue of prevention involves education and one of the things that we've got to overcome is a stigma that still exists in our communities.  We don't talk about this.  We don't talk about in the schools.  Sometimes we don't talk about it in the churches.  It has been as aspect of sometimes a homophobia, that we don't address this issue as clearly as it needs to be.  I also think there's a broader issue here.  This is going to be true on all the issues we talk about.

The problems of poverty, like of health care, like of educational opportunity, are all interconnected.  To some degree, the African American community is weakened.  It has a disease to its immune system.  When we are impoverished, when people don't have jobs, they are more likely to be afflicted not just with AIDS, but with substance abuse problems, with guns in the streets.

So it is important for us to look at the whole body here and make absolutely certain that we are providing the kinds of economic development opportunities and jobs that will create healthy communities, that we've got universal health care that ensures the people can get regular treatments.  Those are the kinds of strategies that, over the long term, are going to make a difference in our communities.

And while I was somewhat disappointed with how quickly he danced away from the issue, and failed to include it in his list of “social diseases” affecting African American communities (after all, homophobia is likely involved to some degree in substance abuse and violence), I was so stunned to hear the word even used at a forum focused on issues facing African Americans that I missed the significance of his next comment, in his exchange with Sen. Biden on the same question.

Joe Biden: …I got tested for AIDS.  I know Barack got tested for AIDS. There's no shame in being tested for AIDS.  It's an important thing because the fact of the matter is, in the communities engaged in denial, no one wants to talk about it in the community and we do not have enough leaders in the community and outside the community demanding we face the reality, confront the men in the community as well as the women, letting them know there are alternatives.

Tavis Smiley:  Thank you.

Barack Obama:  Tavis, I just got to make clear that I got tested with Michelle when we were in Kenya in Africa, so I don't want any confusion here about what's going on.

Joe Biden:  Well, I got tested to save my life because I had a blood transfusion.

Barack Obama:  I was tested with my wife.

Tavis Smiley:  And I'm sure Michelle appreciates you clarifying that.

Barack Obama:  In public.

It wasn't until I read the transcript the next morning that I caught the significance of that exchange, especially in light of Obama's previous remarks about homophobia. Initially, I was more impressed with his remark about homophobia, which was undeniably significant in that setting, as Pam points out.

This was long overdue — a presidential candidate calling out the silence that is killing people — black women are 25 times as likely to be infected with HIV than white women, as Hillary Clinton noted. If the situations were reversed it would be a national health and education emergency commanding the attention of the MSM and government. But that is not the case — there is a pitiful silence on too many levels — but not last night.

Obama's short, but powerful statement on black homophobia is one that none of the other candidates mentioned. Is this a surprise? No — addressing the responsibility of the black community to open its eyes regarding its reticence to take on an internal bias that has allowed HIV/AIDS to ravage it touches the third rail of race. The candidates fear perceptions of a paternalistic white finger being waved at the community will result in blowback from black voters.

I'm grateful that there was a black man up on that stage to broach the subject of homophobia in this community, but the fear of the other pols needs to be overcome, all bridges need to be crossed when the statistics are this stark and horrifying.

I, too, was grateful. So much in fact that I was willing to soften (though not take back) some of my earlier criticisms of Obama. But the second comment didn't come across as lighthearted to me as it did to some people.

Speaking of nice moments, Obama showed his ease in the debate a few minutes ago. After Sen. Joe Biden (Del.) said that both he and Obama had been tested for AIDS, Obama jumped in to note that he had been tested with his wife, Michelle — jokingly adding that he didn't want anyone to think anything “funny” was going on. The crowd laughed as PBS showed Michelle on screen. The moment showed how Obama has grown in the first three debates; he appears relaxed and comfortable tonight.

Relaxed? Comfortable? Maybe I'm drawing too much on my experience as a black gay man, but Obama's reaction came across to me as much like the reaction of so many “bruthas” when the topic of homosexuality comes up. Even the most seemingly non-homophic will follow up a seemingly progressive statement about homosexuality by saying or otherwise affirming that “I ain't no punk.”

However, moments later, he reverted back to schoolyard ways and had a complete frat boy moment wherein he felt it necessary to reaffirm his heterosexuality. Senator Biden had just encouraged people to be tested for HIV by giving himself and Senator Obama as examples of public officials who had done so publicly.

With one comment, he erased the possibility that he would start a meaningful conversation in the Black community about this serious issue. This seems to reveal not only some level of homophobia, but also a level of immaturity which causes me to question Obama's ability to go all the way in this campaign.

Clearly, his comfort with the issue only goes so far. In the light of morning, far from the flashbulbs and the headiness of being in close proximity to political celebrity, Obama's second response seemed to me a superfluous affirmation of his heterosexuality (given the presence of his wife in the audience, at least) and one that would only be necessary to a mind that read Biden's remark as an implication that he and Obama got tested together and thus had some reason to get tested together. A “comfortable” candidate wouldn't have felt it necessary to respond affirm his heterosexuality by responding to Biden's comment, but would have laughed it off instead, without further comment.

And speaking of laughter, given the response of the audience to Obama's second remark ? raucus laughter that seemed to me to be in stark contrast to the subdued response to his earlier remark about homophobia ? indicates that, contrary to Lane Hudson's assessment in his HuffPo piece, any “level of immaturity” indicated in Obama's second remark may actually enhance his ability to “go all the way” in this campaign rather than hobble him in any way.

I've written about black homophobia and its origins before, and I will again, but it occurs to me that it was briefly on display Thursday night, both on the stage and in the audience. In his first line, Obama was “keeping it non-homophobic” for just a minute and the audience response was polite at best. In his second line, Obama was “keeping it real” and they loved him for it.

So, did Obama blow it?  That depends on how you look at it.

Crossposted from The Republic of T.

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