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March 16, 2012

Three Men with Beards

If it weren’t for the familiar profile of Abraham Lincoln lurking in the background, this AP photograph could easily be read as just another classy moment in the high life of a well-known power couple. Andrew Sullivan, the widely read conservative writer, Catholic, and Obama supporter, walks through a ritzy corridor, hand in hand with his actor-artist husband Aaron Tone. Judging by their sleek tuxedoes and the satisfied looks on their faces, they both look forward to a stylish evening and its refined social graces.

But, as is usually the case when visual media are present, this is no ordinary classy moment. Sullivan and Tone are among the invited guests of Barack and Michelle Obama, and the ritzy event, of course, is Thursday’s State Dinner at the White House, held in honor of British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha. And since in the U.S. the visibility of married gay couples has not yet become normalized within the optics of State, it’s hard not to read an important symbolic affirmation onto this moment. For President Obama, such optics deliver a salient response not only to his political opposition as they desperately scramble to inoculate American culture from happy, committed couples like Sullivan-Tone, but also to LGBT advocates within his own party who want to include same-sex marriage in the Democratic party platform.

Even more intriguing, though, is how this photograph articulates multiple layers of continuity between Sullivan, Tone, and Lincoln. It’s not just the physical continuity – three white men with beards – though this visual resemblance certainly draws us into the image, and tempts us to follow its lead. If we follow closely enough, the infamous question of Lincoln’s own homosexuality comes into play, and we might reasonably wonder if Sullivan and Tone thus manage to doubly represent Lincoln in the White House. At any rate, and perhaps much more importantly, each of these three bearded men symbolize a long struggle for human liberty, one that continues to shape American life. March on.

– Phil Perdue

(photo: Charles Dharapak/AP Images. caption: Andrew Sullivan of Newsweek/Daily Beast, left, and Aaron Tone arrive at the Booksellers area of the White House in Washington for the State Dinner hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha, Wednesday, March 14, 2012.)

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