Ken Mehlman and the Gay Republican View from Democrats

When ex-RNC chief Ken Mehlman came out as gay, liberals weren’t ready to forgive. Jacob Bernstein talks to Mark Foley and others about what Democrats make of gay Republicans.

Is it possible Democrats had a harder time with Ken Mehlman’s big gay announcement than Republicans did?

Conservative outlets like Fox News barely mentioned it. Colleagues from the Bush administration seemed merely to offer words of support. Meanwhile, gay activists on the left pounced.

Why should the former Republican National Committee chairman be welcomed in Chelsea, New York (where he’s now living), when six years ago, he was traveling around the Bible Belt with George W. Bush and Karl Rove, rallying anti-gay evangelicals (and the like) to the polls?

Was it really enough to say that he was now going to be an advocate for gay rights within the GOP and that he had offered a helping hand to the American Foundation for Equal Rights, an organization that’s been fighting tirelessly to repeal Proposition 8?

Gallery: Stars and Politicians Who Came Out

The outrage from the left is perhaps best encapsulated by Howard Bragman, the veteran gay-rights activist and PR strategist of choice to actors and actresses coming out of the closet.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Bragman says, “From a PR standpoint, the announcement was executed flawlessly, but I still don’t believe it. Ken Mehlman has never shown anything but instincts for protecting Ken Mehlman, and I wouldn’t expect him to do anything but a brilliant unfolding where he has wonderful people speaking out for him and how he’s helping gay marriage. That’s all fine and good… but I really hope there’s a special place in hell for Ken Mehlman. This man [through his campaigning for George W. Bush] was the architect of this homophobia, teenagers killed themselves, families split apart as a result of what he did. Horrible things happened. He’s as good as a Jew that collaborated with the Nazis.”

Timothy Patrick McCarthy: Gay Republicans RisingHoward R. Selekman: When Sexuality and the Job ClashReihan Salam: Republican Gay Rights BacklashBragman’s Nazi comparison may be over the top, but attitudes like this help to explain why so many other gay Republicans interviewed by The Daily Beast see their biggest enemies not as right-wing evangelicals, but lefty New York and L.A. homosexuals, who they claim are intolerant of views that differ from their own.

In an age when prominent Republicans like Laura Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Steve Schmidt are all advocating more progressive positions on gays in the military and same-sex marriage, gay Republicans are recasting the script yet again. They point out that Mehlman was only one of several Bush aides who were gay (of course, at least some of the most prominent still exist in a glass closet) and speak passionately about other pro-gay Republicans like Mary Matalin and Dick Cheney. (The former vice president’s daughter Mary is gay and Cheney said recently that he supports gay marriage and a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell). They’re also finding a footing within the growing Tea Party movement, where a libertarian ethos seems to be less at odds with gay rights than social conservative movements of years past.

Never mind that Republicans in the House and Senate still vote against gay rights more than 90 percent of the time or that in the most recent election, the party used amendments against gay marriage in several states to drive evangelicals to the polls and defeat Democrats. And never mind that even in recent years, the majority of Republican legislators who have come out have been booted from office.

Jimmy LaSalvia, the head of GOProud, a newly formed organization for gay Republicans, is one such person finding all sorts of unlikely heroes in the Republican Party. He spent Saturday afternoon at the Glenn Beck “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, D.C., and sees the TV host as being emblematic of a new conservative movement, in which big government (rather than abortion doctors or homosexuals) is identified as the real enemy. “He’s like a lot of people in this country who understands what our priorities need to be. He spoke to Bill O’Reilly recently about gay marriage, and he said, ‘Why are people so concerned about this? It doesn’t affect me.’”

“I really hope there’s a special place in hell for Ken Mehlman,” Howard Bragman says.

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“There are a lot of gay people involved in the Tea Party movement,” LaSalvia says. “They’re pissed off, too. People in this country see the government growing at an unmitigated rate and they’re angry. My favorite sign at a Tea Party rally said ‘Freedom is Fabulous.’ And it was held by a gay conservative.”

Still, LaSalvia concedes that GOProud's coffers aren’t exactly overflowing, noting that organization has exactly one full-time employee (LaSalvia) and raised “less than we hoped for” in its first year. He says things are beginning to look up for the organization, but cites as his biggest challenge resistance from gays on the left. “There are some on the extreme right who don’t think we should be there, but there’s less of that than there are people preaching tolerance and diversity but don’t tolerate diversity in our own community.”

The problem extends to LaSalvia’s private life, he says. “I’m single and I actually had been on several dates with a Democratic lobbyist, and he said one night at dinner, ‘Is there any way you could not be a Republican?’ I said, ‘Is there any way you could not be a Democrat?’ I never heard from him again.”

Mark Foley, the former congressman from Florida who resigned in 2006 when he was accused of making advances toward several male pages, says that gays on the left overplay the Democratic Party’s receptiveness toward gays and turn Republicans into boogeymen. “I think there are a lot of Democrats who are publicly pro-gay and very, very hateful privately in their speech. I was at a dinner once with a gay activist who said ‘How could you deal with people like Tom DeLay, but Tom DeLay has a biblical problem with homosexuality. I’d rather have [DeLay] tell me that to my face instead of talking about me behind my back. There’s no franchise on equality in either party.”

In fact, as he tells it, Republicans generally had better gaydar than their Democratic counterparts. “Everyone in the leadership knew, Dick Armey, everyone,” Foley says. “Newt Gingrich took me on trips. None of them ever said, ‘Why aren’t you married?’ The only one who ever did that was Dianne Feinstein. I’m on an Air Force plane with David Dreier and Chris Dodd. She looks up at us, and says, ‘I’m going to find you guys wives.’ I laughed and said, ‘Who are you talking to?’”

Because people in his party had so little personal animosity toward him, Foley has also come to believe that many Republican politicians opposing gay rights are less personally homophobic than they are professionally opportunistic. “There’s a lot of political reflexes that take place that have nothing to do with the person themselves,” he says. “Some of it is just political jousting, it’s about vote-getting and stirring the pot and playing to the base. It’s what they feel they must do to survive politically.” (And of course, even Armey, whom Foley mentions as being totally fine with his sexuality, was the same guy who famously called openly gay congressman Barney Frank ‘Barney Fag.’)

Indeed, when I speak to a gay Capitol Hill staffer whose own boss has a terrible record on gay rights, he explains that part of what enables him to maintain a clear conscience is the idea that his boss is merely playing to his base. As he says, “I’ve been out to my boss for years and he’s never cared. He said ‘I’m glad you told me, it’s never going to be an issue, let’s get back to work’ and do good things for my district.’”

Those things include fighting the president and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reduce domestic spending, and advocating for a muscular foreign policy. As the Hill staffer sees it, battling Islamic radicals should be a crucial part of any serious gay agenda.

Nevertheless, it’s this idea that homophobia is largely a matter of political expediency, a rallying cry to the Neanderthal base, that people like Bragman get stuck on. And it’s part of what they find most deplorable about Mehlman’s alleged past. “If any of what he did was for moral reasons, I might have respect for it,” Bragman says, “But it’s not. It was pure politics and it had a real price. It hurt good people. Will I forgive him? At some point, perhaps, but not yet.”

Correction, 8/30: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the daughter of Dick Cheney who came out as gay was Liz Cheney.

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.