I want to tell you about the man I see as the greatest gay icon that has ever lived. His name is Richard M. Nixon, he was president of the United States between 1969 and 1974 and…
Hold on a second, Richard Nixon a “gay icon”? I would expect many of you to grimace at the idea. Indeed, Richard Nixon’s verbal bigotry against a wide range of minorities is well-known thanks to the release of private audio tapes recorded during his presidency.
He’s also hugely disliked in the United States, for reasons that include sabotaging President Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks in 1968 and unleashing the Watergate scandal on the country.
So my fellow gay compatriots and civil rights supporters will naturally turn around and ask why we’d want a homophobe and one of the most reviled presidents ever to be embraced by the LGBT community.
Well, let me explain. For all of the bigoted things he said about gay people – including blaming homosexuality for the fall of the Roman Empire – Nixon was also far ahead of his time in his understanding of homosexuality.
Nixon understood that gay people are born that way and predicted that gay marriage would arrive in the year 2000 – this back in 1970. This was a surprisingly progressive view for a president who was in power in the early ’70s.
Nixon with Elvis
Sure, he also said some terrible things as well about gays. But what I would say is that Nixon embodies the best and worst traits of the intelligent, closeted, self-loathing gay man without actually being a gay man himself.
The contradictions of Nixon’s character, his paranoia and fear of other people’s judgements – so much so that he kept an enemy list – really do parallel the distrust and inferiority complex that many gay people feel when growing up in a hostile society.
The fact that he was a man of such towering achievements – being on the presidential ticket in five elections, opening relations with China during his presidency – and also huge failings only adds to his immense complexity. He represents the adage of not being black or white but grey, as gay individuals such as myself feel.
With his fall from grace he competes with other tragic figures viewed as gay icons such as Judy Garland. Yet while he may not be as pretty or as glamorous as some of his competitors for the title of gay icon, he’s more tragically human than any of them. He simply could never accept he was good enough or worthy enough.
So, yes, Richard Nixon is both an LGBT visionary and a bigot, a success and a failure. And no-one embodies the struggle between competing emotions, contradictory ideas and the turmoil of feeling like an outsider than Richard Nixon. That, for me, makes him the greatest gay icon there is and a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t accept your talents and allow your insecurities to destroy you.