Issues & Ideas

The politics of coming out of the closet

In 2005, then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman holds a town-hall style meeting with community and church leaders at the Renaissance at the Gables in Miami.
In 2005, then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman holds a town-hall style meeting with community and church leaders at the Renaissance at the Gables in Miami. EL NUEVO HERALD FILE

You'd think with all the Republican support these days for same-sex marriage, that GOP stood for Gay Old Party.

After Kenneth Mehlman, George W. Bush's 2004 campaign manager, came out as gay last month, he seemed to get way more grief from Democrats -- who said a gay man would have to be a hypocrite to work to get a conservative Republican elected president -- than moderate members of his own party, who basically shrugged and said: ``Whatever.''

``In gay organizations and gay circles, most people don't understand how somebody can be gay and Republican,'' said Holland & Knight litigator Robert Watson, past president of the gay Log Cabin Republicans club of Miami. ``It's been more difficult [for me] to come out as Republican in gay circles than as gay in Republican circles.''

The Mehlman episode has underscored the steadily shifting tides in the politics of sexual identity.

John McCain's 2008 campaign manager Steve Schmidt last week told Huffington Post ``there is a strong conservative case to be made in favor of gay marriage.''

Later this month, Schmidt and a cadre of Republican stalwarts (plus a few well-known Democrats) will hold a $5,000-a-person fundraiser to help pay legal fees for the team that successfully overturned California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8.

And according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll in August, nearly half of all Americans (49 percent; up five percentage points from 2009) think the Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry.

Watson says Mehlman's surprise announcement Aug. 25 in The Atlantic ``is a positive overall.''

``It will change people's minds that they know somebody they previously respected who came out as gay,'' Watson said.

The day Mehlman came out, national Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director R. Clarke Cooper said: ``Log Cabin Republicans is very supportive and appreciative of Ken's coming out. Being gay and being conservative are not mutually exclusive.''

Benjamin Bullard, president and founder of the gay conservative Sunshine Republicans club in Fort Lauderdale, agrees Mehlman will serve as an important role model.

``He's a very powerful voice within the Republican Party,'' Bullard said. ``I think he'll gain ground. He's finally being true to himself. Once he opens up completely and speaks completely about himself, people will respect him rather than hiding in the closet.''

Bullard said that as a gay Republican, Mehlman ``is going to be criticized and belittled by the other side for being who he is. They can't accept the fact that our party is inclusive.''

Watson calls himself ``a minority among Republicans and a minority with gays'' and says he often takes verbal abuse for his political affiliation.

``Those kinds of comments are based on a mistaken assumption that all Republicans are social conservatives or on the far right,'' Watson said. ``But in time, people are realizing that there are moderate Republicans taking positions on gay issues.''

On Sept. 22, Mehlman, Schmidt, Mary Cheney (former Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter), and other high-level politicians will hold a $10,000-a-couple reception in New York City to raise money for the legal team that successfully argued a federal court overturn of California's Proposition 8.

The unlikely pair who won the case: former legal adversaries David Boies, who represented Democratic Vice President Al Gore at the Supreme Court in the 2000 presidential recount, and Ted Olson -- who successfully argued the case for Republican candidate George W. Bush.

While Mehlman chaired the GOP in the mid-2000s, the Republican Party platform officially opposed gay marriage and the Bush administration strongly supported anti-gay marriage amendments throughout the United States.

``It's taken me 43 years to get comfortable with this part of my life,'' Mehlman told The Atlantic. ``Everybody has their own path to travel, their own journey, and for me, over the past few months, I've told my family, friends, former colleagues, and current colleagues, and they've been wonderful and supportive. The process has been something that's made me a happier and better person. It's something I wish I had done years ago.''

Although Mehlman, now 44, publicly supported the Bush agenda, ``in private discussions with senior Republican officials, he beat back efforts to attack same-sex marriage,'' The Atlantic reported.

``Shock of shocks,'' said Michael Rogers, a Washington, D.C.-based gay blogger who helped disclose the 2006 Mark Foley congressional page scandal.

Last year, Rogers appeared in Outrage, a controversial documentary about powerful antigay politicians believed by many to be gay. The film featured a TV moment in 2006 when comedian Bill Maher outed Mehlman on Larry King Live. CNN edited out Maher's remark for the show's rebroadcast.

Rogers is highly critical of Mehlman, whom he described as ``ringleader'' of the GOP's antigay platform.

``Gay rights aren't important unless you're gay,'' Rogers said. ``He's a homophobe! I can't stand him, if you can't tell.''

Rogers described Mehlman and other gay Republicans as ``apologists.''

Democrats say gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people fare much better when their party is in power.

President Barack Obama's administration supported passage of the 2009 gay-inclusive Matthew Shepard hate crimes act and is seeking an end to the military's ``don't ask, don't tell'' policy. It also supports repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (passed in 1996 with support of then-President Bill Clinton), although Obama says he believes marriages should be between men and women.

Miami Beach-based finance writer Andrew Tobias, a gay man who since 1999 has been treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, becomes furious when some gays say it doesn't matter which party is in power.

``Even gay Republicans agree the Democratic Party is night-and-day better on gay issues. Dems in the House and Senate vote almost unanimously for our stuff; Republicans, almost unanimously against,'' Tobias said. ``I'm sure most Republican congressfolk don't hate gays -- they just don't want hate crimes protection extended to cover us or employment discrimination laws extended to cover us or Social Security benefits to our partners and children -- or to allow us to serve in the military or to marry.''

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