August 28, 2010
This week, in what was a complete non-surprise, Ken Mehlman finally got around to publicly acknowledging that he is—gasp!—gay. So another rich dude turns out to be a little light in his tasseled loafers. Why should we care?
Well, maybe, just maybe, it's because Mehlman was the first political director for the George W. Bush administration, the campaign director for the Bush 2004 reelection campaign, and Chairman of the Republican National Committee after the Bush reelection. His political career was built in large part on a foundation of cynical, anti-gay demagoguery, using gay marriage as a national wedge issue in the 2004 election, and standing silent as the Bush administration and the Republican party pandered to the religious right with overt gestures (threatening to veto ENDA, resisting repeal of DOMA and DADT, and advocating two Federal Marriage Amendments) and "dog whistle" tactics (e.g., campaigning on the classic "San Francisco values" or "protect the kids" memes). Joe.My.God summed it up nicely with this pithy headline: "Repulsive Anti-Gay Quisling Homophobic Scumbag Asshat Closeted Former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman Has Come Out".
To call Mehlman's actions "bigoted" or "anti-gay" really understates the case. Trust me, during the 2004 election, I actually felt like Republicans, including my President, regarded me as a second-class citizen. It is difficult to express how hurtful that era of politics was to me on a personal level, when a political party actively campaigned on a platform designed to whip up votes through divisive hatred toward gays. It is even more distressing to me that Republicans routinely resort to gay-bashing to win elections, when the Conservative (Tory) Party in Britain has made efforts to be more inclusive and welcoming of gays (and other minorities), while still advancing conservative policies and winning a few elections along the way. Over the past decade, voting Republican has never been a live option for me, at least at the state or national levels, because even if an individual Republican could get elected without campaigning against gays, that candidate's election would indirectly assist the bigoted Republican party core in advancing its social agenda.
What's even more galling about Mehlman's announcement is how fake it all seems, massaged to minimize any negative PR. Mehlman's statements simply defy belief:
Mehlman arrived at this conclusion about his identity fairly recently, he said in an interview. ...
"It's taken me 43 years to get comfortable with this part of my life," said Mehlman, now an executive vice-president with the New York City-based private equity firm, KKR. "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."
—Interview by Marc Ambinder in "The Atlantic"
Bullshit. I'm only a few years younger than Mehlman, I grew up in a conservative rural area, and I went into the legal profession at a time when being openly gay wasn't common, so I have a pretty good idea of the path he's traveled. Let me be very blunt—Mehlman has known he is gay for decades. He might have been afraid of being openly gay, but he didn't just wake up one day this past March and think, "Hmmm, wonder if I'd enjoy sex with men." And let's keep in mind, Mehlman has been credibly reported for years to have been dating men even while enjoying his powerful political positions, so pardon me while I roll my eyes at his sudden gay awakening.
Mehlman's public acknowledgement of the blindingly obvious has been accompanied by plenty of self-pitying hand-wringing about how difficult the process has been for him:
The disclosure at this stage of Mehlman's life strikes one close friend as being like a decision to jump off of a high diving board: Mehlman knows that there is plenty of water below, but it is still very scary to look down and make the leap. Mehlman likes order and certainty, and he knows that the reaction to his public confirmation cannot be predicted or contained
Because his tenure as RNC chairman and his time at the center of the Bush political machine coincided with the Republican Party's attempts to exploit anti-gay prejudices and cement the allegiance of social conservatives, his declaration to the world is at once a personal act and an act of political speech.
"I wish I was where I am today 20 years ago. The process of not being able to say who I am in public life was very difficult. No one else knew this except me. My family didn't know. My friends didn't know. Anyone who watched me knew I was a guy who was clearly uncomfortable with the topic," he said.
—Interview by Marc Ambinder in "The Atlantic"
Oh, please. Trust me, the decision to come out can be difficult, laced with fear of rejection by family or friends, and for some folks, very real fears of loss of job, harassment, or bullying. But Mehlman has always been a part of the privileged classes, where his being openly gay might have hurt his chances to work publicly in certain Republican party leadership positions, but otherwise being out would have had minimal effect on his life. Even in today's more gay tolerant environment, there are gay youth coming out publicly despite facing real consequences—bullying, physical attacks, estrangment from family and friends, and loss of financial and emotional support. Other gay folks are living openly out lives in more gay-hostile areas of the country, with none of the safety nets conferred by Mehlman's social status. Mehlman's failure to come out before now has nothing to do with any struggle over his identity, and has everything to do with a cynical, craven, and cowardly choice to pursue his personal interests at the expense of common gay folks.
Now, I'm not one to support "outing" closeted politicians or celebrities. Who people sleep with is generally none of my business, and doesn't seem to correlate much with their ability to do their jobs. But I feel comfortable condemning those closet cases who actively use positions of power and influence to advance their own careers at the expense of gay folks who don't enjoy the same degree of acceptance and protection. Mehlman decided long ago that being out would be detrimental to his career. Fine, he was entitled to make that difficult choice. But as Mehlman was building his conservative resumé, hobknobbing with fat cats, strutting around the upper echelons of the national political scene, and parlaying it all into a small fortune and plum job (executive VP at "legendary leverage-buyout mastodon KKR"), there were hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of regular American gay folks suffering from job and housing discrimination, being kicked out of the military, and being denied the right to adopt kids or receive even minimal recognition of their relationships. Obviously, Mehlman isn't solely responsible for all Republican anti-gay bigotry; there are plenty in the party who share that blame. But Mehlman was a key figure in the Republican decision to pursue gay-baiting as a campaign strategy, which appears even more cynical now that other key Republican insiders from that era—including notably Dick Cheney, Laura Bush, and Steve Schmidt—have recently stated public support for gay marriage, as well as repealing DADT to permit gays to serve openly in the military.
Mehlman says he wants to work to advance gay causes within the Republican party, including raising funds for the fight to legalize gay marriage. Some in the gay community are welcoming Mehlman's belated support for gay rights issues:
Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award winning writer of "Milk," said, "Ken represents an incredible coup for the American Foundation for Equal Rights. We believe that our mission of equal rights under the law is one that should resonate with every American. As a victorious former presidential campaign manager and head of the Republican Party, Ken has the proven experience and expertise to help us communicate with people across each of the 50 states."
—Interview by Marc Ambinder in "The Atlantic"
Mehlman is a despicable lying, cheating, opportunistic weasel (with apologies to the many fine weasels among my readers), so you'll pardon me if I don't drop off a "welcome to the community" fruit basket. However, I do believe in atonement and redemption. Mehlman deserves a chance to repair the damage he and his party caused. But after cashing in on the demonization of gays, Mehlman needs to do more than sign onto a few high-profile fundraisers for gay rights groups. And, until gays can serve openly in the military, work free from discrimination, and marry the person they love, Mehlman should be rightly reviled for not using his power and influence to step up and fight for the rights of gays when it mattered the most.
2. Is it possible to be gay and not want same sex marriage? (although I relent there are some days all of us would vote to abolish marriage, I digress). My point is, while I disagree with the standard conservative argument against same sex marriage, I can at least (somewhat) understand their position. For someone who is gay to not only be against it, but to champion policy and public opinion against it, seems unbelievable to me.
I don't think gays, or any other minority group, should ever be expected to hold homogenous views on any political issue. There are certainly reasonable arguments to be made that gays should be granted civil recognition of their relationships on an equal basis, while reserving the label "marriage" for relationships recognized by a religious faith tradition. But the hypocrisy of helping lead the charge against gay equality on a wide spectrum of issues, through the method of vilifying gay folks, is what is particularly galling conduct by a closet case like Mehlman.