“Take care of this house, for this house is the hope of us all.”
The character of Abigail Adams sings these words to a young Black servant named Lud in the Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The short-lived Broadway production depicted life in the White House since the presidency of John Adams. More than two centuries later, Barack and Michelle Obama moved into that very house, one that slaves helped to build.
It brings me to tears when I stop and think about the magnitude of this man’s accomplishments over the last eight years—and how his exit on January 20, 2017, will leave a hole in America’s soul. The Obamas have honored our country with an unforgettable mixture of intelligence, warmth and resolve.
Although I have a great deal to say about Obama’s accomplishments as president, I want to specifically reflect on his influence on me as a gay Black man. It starts with five magical words.
“This is my husband, Andrew.”
If I had my doubts there would be a Black president in my lifetime, I couldn’t even begin to fathom the day when I would be able to utter those words.
Since we met in 1987, Andrew and I had become accustomed to double standards of every kind. Although we were out to friends, family members and work colleagues whom we knew to be accepting, I still practiced evasive techniques with many of my clients.
If I mentioned Andrew’s presence in my life, he was “my friend” Andrew, always hoping no one would ask, “Is he your boyfriend?” More often than not, I would refrain from mentioning him at all. While spouses and significant others often played a role in certain social work-related dinners and functions, I never pressed for Andrew’s inclusion. It never bothered him in the least. It increasingly bothered me.
Andrew and I had a commitment ceremony in 2005, which was an unbelievably moving day for everyone. Again, there were the double standards: we weren’t really “married” but we were forced to accept laws which unfairly limited Andrew’s legal rights. In fact, the laws penalized us for being together. If something happened to me, for example, Andrew would be forced to perform a fire sale of half of the company that I built.
We also had to accept the awkward designation of referring to each other as “my partner.” “Life partner” sounded too soft while “domestic partner” sounded like it could apply to Carol and Alice working together to pack lunches for the Brady kids. “Partner” also created confusion, because I have a business partner named Cory Isaacson, who is married to a woman.
Then came Barack, who recognized that double standards had to be eliminated in order for equality to prevail. During his 2012 re-election campaign, Obama announced that civil unions didn’t nearly dignify the importance of two people who loved each other: he was for gay marriage. Some pundits worried that this could negatively affect him with swing voters. For me, he was saying: “You’re just going to have to live with it or not vote for me.”
As Obama pushed back on double standards, I was inspired to do the same. I started by not hesitating to say, “I have a husband and his name is Andrew.” Soon, I was saying it to anyone at any time.
Once I started to eliminate double standards in my own life, I realized that I couldn’t stop with LGBT issues. Double standards hurt us all and no one should have to tolerate them. When Latinos were unfairly vilified by the now President-elect, I encouraged my staff to address the issue head-on. As an agency, we helped create the “Turn Ignorance Around” campaign for the CHIRLA Action Fund. Some warned me that being so vocal might hurt my business, but I understood that the price of my silence—of our collective silence—on the issue was incalculable.
Given the results of the election, we are going to have to work harder than ever to ensure history points to Barack Obama’s extraordinary accomplishments as a world leader. If he didn’t think he was worthy of the 2009 Nobel Prize, he has more than earned it during his presidency. In that acceptance speech, and in his actions since, he reminds us, “We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice.”
Barack Obama was everybody’s president in the truest sense of the word. His extraordinary eight years lifted us all. That being said, his legacy will always carry a special meaning to anyone who has faced double standards in a society telling them to settle for less.
Aaron Walton is co-founder of Walton Isaacson, “The Planet’s Most Interesting Agency,” which was recently named one of the Inc. 5000 fastest growing private companies in the United States. Walton has been named Advertising Executive of the Year at the Target Market News’ MAAX Awards; he was named to Ebony Magazine’s 2013 “POWER 100” list, and is a member of the OUT 100, a list of the most influential LGBT leaders in America.