January 21, 2021

Happy First Second Gentleman's Day!

Ali Michael

This year, 2021, we celebrate a number of historic firsts. Leading the list, of course, is our first Black, Indian American, woman Vice President. It also includes our first First Lady who plans to keep her job after her partner takes office, as well as the first Indigenous Secretary of the Interior, the first openly gay Secretary of Transportation, and the first trans Assistant Secretary of Health. My mind is spinning with joy and gratitude for the ways in which our government today looks more and more like the America I know and love. I hold trepidatious hope that the diverse group of folks going to DC to fill these posts are going to make a lasting, positive policy difference in the lives of the Americans I know and love.

But today I want to acknowledge another historic first. It’s our first Second Gentleman. This is the first time that either our president or vice president has a man for a spouse or partner. And the reason I want to acknowledge this is because I have a seven-year-old — a white cisgender boy — who will most likely grow up to be a white man. As a parent who seeks to help her child grow into an anti-racist white adult, I want his world filled with role models who can help him see what it looks like to be a white man who acts as an ally — a co-conspirator in the drive for a more inclusive, just nation and world.

Doug Emhoff, Vice President Harris’s spouse, may not have set out to play this role, or even think he is playing it. For Emhoff, the journey started when he fell in love with Kamala Harris. Each kept their last names. He supported her career as a local, then national, politician while continuing to do his own work as a lawyer. In many ways, like so many men I know and love, he is simply being a modern spouse, supporting his beloved to pursue her hopes and dreams while pursuing his own — while the two of them share the work of creating a loving family to accompany them through life.

But as Vice President Harris steps into her position as the second most powerful American politician, Emhoff, has been catapulted into a new and important spotlight. By virtue of his partnership with the Vice President, he is now in the subordinate, and very public, role of the first Second Gentleman.

This is huge. Emhoff models for all of us what it looks like when a loving spouse put his spouse’s hopes and dreams ahead of his own, as First and Second Ladies have been doing for their vice presidential and presidential spouses for nearly 250 years. Emhoff has paused his career, moved to Washington, and is actively stepping into a support role to help his wife be the best vice president that she can be.

Emhoff is not a superhero for doing this, nor does he seem to want to be. But in his quiet, loving, humble support of Vice President Harris, he is demonstrating to millions of boys what it looks like to be a part in an equitable partnership — and one that is also multiracial, multiethnic, and multireligious. He is a white Jewish man and she is a multiracial woman. It’s worth noting that their partnership would have been illegal in many states just 54 years ago.

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, psychologist, author, and president emerita of Spelman College, tells us that white children need role models for what it looks like to be anti-racist. After four years in which white children have been watching white supremacists assume top government jobs, even occupying the highest seat in the land, white kids need as many anti-racist role models as they can get. Ironically, I’ve noticed, most of the white people who are worth holding up as role models don’t make a big deal of themselves. So I want to make note of it here. Harris is the big deal, of course. Emhoff is her support. But in that support role, he has been elevated from an already valuable role model to an even more significant one.

The day after Biden was declared the winner of this election, my partner and I gave in and bought our seven-year-old a Lego set that he had been asking for. When we gave it to him, we told him it was a “Happy First Second Gentleman’s Present.” That Monday in school, he shared it with his class (via computer from our living room). From my spot in the kitchen, I overheard him say, “I got this Lego in honor of the first female Vice President.” He knew Emhoff wasn’t the big deal. He knew it was Vice President Harris all along. But he also understood that Harris’s election and Emhoff’s supporting role, one that will play out in the public eye for four years at least, is cause for celebration, even presents.

I want my white son to have lots of models of what it looks like to live in loving relationship, to have a partner he respects and supports, to feel respected and supported by his partner, to live for a community that is bigger than himself, to work to guarantee the rights of people who are different from him, to see the interconnectedness between himself and all other people. I am grateful for our First Second Gentleman today, in all his humble self-awareness. It gives me hope that more white boys will see Emhoff and similarly grow up to be part of healthy multiracial communities in which their role is crucial, even if it’s not the lead.

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Ali Michael, PhD