Will the Republican Party follow Ken Mehlman’s lead and step out on gay rights? Historian Timothy McCarthy imagines a future where the GOP starts talking like Harvey Milk.
Every queer knows that some of the biggest homophobes are closet cases. Simply recall the names of Mark Foley, Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, or George “rent-boy” Rekers. The latest Republican to move from the closet to the Log Cabin is Ken Mehlman, the architect of George W. Bush’s successful 2004 reelection campaign and former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Judging by the current political climate, Mehlman’s coming out may not be an aberration for Republicans. It could actually point the way toward its future.
Last week, Mehlman, whose “lifestyle” has long been an open secret in Washington, made waves by finally acknowledging his homosexuality to The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder. “It’s taken me 43 years to get comfortable with this part of my life,” Mehlman said. “Everybody has their own path to travel, their own journey…” In coming out, Mehlman also joined a growing chorus of GOP power players—among them Dick Cheney, Laura Bush, and former McCain campaign adviser Steve Schmidt—who now say they support the right of same-sex couples to get married. But Mehlman is going even further, raising money and assisting one of the main groups responsible for the (so far) successful court challenge to California’s anti-gay Proposition 8.
No matter how open he is now, no matter what was going through his head and heart at the time, Ken Mehlman must answer for the anti-gay prejudice and discrimination his leadership helped to unleash on the nation.
So what do we make of Ken Mehlman? First of all, to be fair, the former Bush adviser is in a different category from people like Mark Foley, Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, and George Rekers—men who have made careers of fighting to deny LGBT people their equal rights even as they continue to publicly deny their private homosexual impulses and practices. By contrast, Mehlman came out on his own terms, however belatedly, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of getting caught with his pants down. Relative to this other randy quartet of queers (reformed or otherwise), he’s a more sympathetic figure. But there is nothing to prevent us from feeling compassion for Mehlman in his personal journey as a gay man, while also holding him fully accountable for the political choices he made that were so destructive to gay people, himself included.
• Howard R. Selekman: When Sexuality and the Job Clash• Reihan Salam: Republican Gay Rights Backlash• Jacob Bernstein: The Lives of Gay RepublicansThe Bush era—a long national nightmare that Mehlman helped to create and sustain—was a dark time for queer folks. Building as it did on a disappointing Clinton presidency that saw both the implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the passage of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the Bush administration made no secret of its disdain for the LGBT community. In addition to endorsing a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage “as between a man and a woman,” George W. Bush capitalized on a slate of anti-gay state ballot initiatives—11 of them in November 2004 alone—to win reelection. This careful strategy, to energize the Republican base by placing anti-gay measures on the ballot in vulnerable states, was the brainchild of top Bush advisers like Karl Rove—and Ken Mehlman.
According to Ambinder, Mehlman claims to have fought hard behind-the-scenes to “beat back attacks on same-sex marriage,” and he continues to maintain that George W. Bush “is no homophobe.” But this is too little, too late, and in this case, the public record trumps personal recollections or private sentiments. It is now clear that the Rove-Mehlman-Bush strategy worked brilliantly by driving Christian evangelicals, especially, to the polls in higher numbers than ever before. This proved a crucial factor—perhaps the crucial factor—in Bush’s 2004 victory. Between 2004 and 2007, 21 states banned same-sex marriage through ballot initiatives or legislation. No matter how open he is now, no matter what was going through his head and heart at the time, Ken Mehlman must answer for the anti-gay prejudice and discrimination his leadership helped to unleash on the nation.
We should not forget, however, that the Bush era also saw some important LGBT victories, despite the cynical work of Rove, Mehlman, and their minions. From the 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage to California’s landmark domestic-partnership legislation to Oregon’s historic employment non-discrimination law, the struggle for LGBT equality proved strikingly resilient in the face of the Bush Administration’s anti-gay agenda. Of course, these triumphs all happened at the state, rather than federal, level, shifting the terrain of the “culture war,” and helping to catalyze a new generation of LGBT activists.
Now the political landscape has shifted yet again. Indeed, it is telling that Republican lawyer Ted Olson—lead counsel in Bush v. Gore, the 2000 Supreme Court case that brought us the most anti-gay presidency in American history—is now a far more eloquent and coherent advocate for same-sex marriage than nearly every prominent Democrat, including Barack Obama, who has professed to be a “fierce ally” in the struggle for LGBT equality. This should give us pause. I don’t want to overreach here. The Republican Party, especially its much-hyped “base,” is in no danger of becoming the next “Lavender Menace.” That said, many of its most powerful leaders, including gay Republicans like Ken Mehlman, are changing course on issues like same-sex marriage. If recent polls are to be trusted—in mid-August, a much-cited CNN poll found that 52 percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage—Mehlman and other prominent Republicans are now more in line with the thinking of an emerging majority of Americans than many of their Democratic peers, including the president.
If Democrats are not careful, if they do not begin to make swift and sustained efforts to strengthen their commitment to LGBT equality, the GOP may rightly see an opportunity to tack to the current political winds. Consider Mehlman’s own words to be a prophetic warning: “What I will try to do is to persuade people, when I have conversations with them, that it is consistent with our party's philosophy, whether it's the principle of individual freedom, or limited government, or encouraging adults who love each other and who want to make a lifelong commitment to each other to get married." Perhaps instead of rejecting gays and lesbians, Republicans will begin to reach out to us. I can imagine a not-too-distant scenario where certain Republicans try to pre-empt their Democratic opponents—and the internal Tea Party challenge—by stealing a page right out of Harvey Milk’s playbook: “We are Republicans, and we’re here to recruit you.” Lord knows they could use the help right now.
And some of us seem ripe for the picking, principally, those who consider marriage to be the most—or only—important “gay issue” of the day. For the record, I am not one of those queers, and when it comes to politics, I am as skeptical of Republicans and Democrats as I am of those within the LGBT movement who would trust our liberation to one issue or either party. But given the piecemeal, incremental approach to LGBT rights—one court case, one ballot initiative, one policy issue at a time—what’s to stop Republicans, just like Democrats, from picking and choosing which portion of our humanity is safe to support at any given political moment? Put another way, might it be possible for Republicans to support same-sex marriage but not employment non-discrimination, in the same way that most Democrats have supported the latter but not the former? If that happens, to whom will we then turn?
Of course, this could all be a fantasy. But make no mistake, there is a sea change in our midst—one with profound implications not only for how we treat people with different sexual orientations, but also for how we understand our political orientations in this new century. For our part, queer folks need to demand that our full acceptance as citizens and human beings is not negotiable; until then, elected leaders of both parties will continue to treat us as nothing more than a special-interest group to be manipulated or marginalized. If we continue to invest all our hopes and dreams in the political system, people like Ken Mehlman may well turn out to be the most fitting symbols of our age.
Timothy Patrick McCarthy is core faculty and director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, at Harvard's Kennedy School. McCarthy was a founding member of Barack Obama’s National LGBT Leadership Council. His latest book is Protest Nation: Words That Inspired a Century of American Radicalism published by the New Press.