Let’s analyze the Atlantic Magazine story about the coming out of former Republican National Committee Chairman, Ken Mehlman, and discuss what steps he must take to redeem himself with the gay community:
“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.”
Perhaps, if he had not worked for a party that used LGBT people as a wedge issue, he would have accepted himself 10 or 20 years earlier. In a sense, he helped construct his own stifling closet. I can respect that he had his own path, but Mehlman cannot deny that his abhorrent actions negatively affected the paths of so many other people. His odious work led to broken families, gay teenagers committing suicide, LGBT couples who were not able to marry, broken people joining silly “ex-gay” programs and individuals who lost their jobs or were hate crime victims. Mehlman should own up to his hideous mistake and offer a heartfelt apology. Yes, he will be forgiven, but first he must make amends. So far, his coming out has been all about himself, without acknowledging the extent of his toxic legacy.
He insisted, too, that President Bush “was no homophobe.”
It is probably true that George W. Bush was not homophobic and he always seemed somewhat comfortable around gay people. However, this is not comforting, because it means that the former president’s anti-gay policies were nothing more than a cynical and amoral attempt to divide America for the sake of political power. Ken Mehlman played along with this tragic game. He willingly demonized marriage equality. He orchestrated some of the most vile anti-gay campaigns in history and profited handsomely from the wreckage. Did Mehlman intervene or speak up in 2006 when Bush brought so-called “ex-gay” activists from Exodus International to the White House to lobby for the Federal Marriage Amendment?
He often wondered why gay voters never formed common cause with Republican opponents of Islamic jihad, which he called “the greatest anti-gay force in the world right now.”
Like most people, the vast majority of LGBT individuals oppose Islamic jihad. However, the GOP proposed replacing Islamic fundamentalism with a form of Christian fundamentalism. Quite frankly, neither vision is particularly appealing. Living in America, a Republican-led theocracy was always a much greater threat than Islamic jihad. Furthermore, most LGBT voters were rightfully skeptical of the cooked-up “intelligence” that railroaded us into the quagmire of Iraq. The policies of the Bush administration made us less safe, not more secure.
Mehlman’s leadership positions in the GOP came at a time when the party was stepping up its anti-gay activities — such as the distribution in West Virginia in 2006 of literature linking homosexuality to atheism, or the less-than-subtle, coded language in the party’s platform (“Attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country…”). Mehlman said at the time that he could not, as an individual Republican, go against the party consensus. He was aware that Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief strategic adviser, had been working with Republicans to make sure that anti-gay initiatives and referenda would appear on November ballots in 2004 and 2006 to help Republicans. Mehlman acknowledges that if he had publicly declared his sexuality sooner, he might have played a role in keeping the party from pushing an anti-gay agenda.
Mehlman was an adult and a very powerful man in Washington. He had a clear choice to make, and he elected to embrace unadulterated greed over integrity. He willfully abandoned the LGBT community (including suicidal teens) for the sake of privilege, power and money. His choice was one of cowardice and self-interest. As a direct result of his decision, he became famous, well-connected and earned enough money to buy a multi-million dollar condo in New York’s gay Chelsea district. Many people are faced with such choices every day and act with dignity and good character. What Ken Mehlman should have done, was demand that the GOP not use LGBT people as a wedge issue. If Karl Rove refused, Mehlman should have resigned.
“It’s a legitimate question and one I understand,” Mehlman said. “I can’t change the fact that I wasn’t in this place personally when I was in politics, and I genuinely regret that. It was very hard, personally.” He asks of those who doubt his sincerity: “If they can’t offer support, at least offer understanding.”
What can reasonably be offered, given the circumstances, is a pragmatic acceptance of Mehlman. It is important to include him in order to make it easier for the next 10, 20 or 100 Ken Mehlman’s to come out of the closet, so we can end anti-gay prejudice for future generations. This is about the greater good and the future — rather than wallowing in the sordid past. But, Mehlman would be wise not to attempt to whitewash history. The LGBT community in not as gullible as the rubes he used to trick with divisive social issues.
“What I do regret, and think a lot about, is that one of the things I talked a lot about in politics was how I tried to expand the party into neighborhoods where the message wasn’t always heard. I didn’t do this in the gay community at all.”
Come on, Ken. Stop the spin. The GOP was not going to be able to walk through Chelsea or San Francisco’s Castro district knocking on doors to promote the Federal Marriage Amendment. If Mehlman wants to be accepted, honesty will be his greatest ally.
“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.
Would it truly have made a difference? Would Mehlman really have traded his access to power, wealth and fame just to live out and proud? Only he can answer this question. But, one point is undeniable. If he had come out 20 years ago, he never would have become the chairman of the GOP or a key player on the Bush team, because the Republican Party had long cast its lot with religious extremists.
Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chairman and long-time friend of Mehlman acknowledged that the party had been inhospitable to gays in the past, and said that he hopes Mehlman’s decision to come out leads the party to be “more respectful and civil in our discourse” when it comes to gays.
For openly LGBT people to have a place of influence and distinction in the Republican Party, the GOP must decide it will no longer be hostage to social conservatives. This party’s alleged “big tent” is simply not large enough to hold both the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and Ken Mehlman. The agendas of these two men are incongruous. Who is the GOP going to choose? (If the line-up of Republican backed Tea Bagger candidates is any indication, they are still on-board with anti-gay activists)
Mehlman said that his formal coming-out process began earlier this year.
Formal coming out process? Huh? Did he buy a tuxedo for the occasion? I don’t care what Mehlman says. He is 43 years old and must have known he was gay for decades before he started professionally gay bashing for the GOP. What he was really trying to say was, now that he is rich, successful, lives in Chelsea and no longer shills for the Republican Party, he felt safe enough to come out of the closet.
Chad Griffin, the California-based political strategist who organized opposition to Proposition 8, said that Mehlman’s quiet contributions to the American Foundation for Equal Rights are “tremendous,” adding that “when we achieve equal equality, he will be one of the people to thank for it.”
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.”
Let’s cut Griffin and Black a little slack. They are trying to strategically move forward with LGBT equality as a bipartisan issue. If their opportunistic use of Mehlman leads to more Republicans openly backing our efforts, we will be much better off. To do so, would further relegate anti-gay activists to the fringe and make our uphill struggle a downhill victory march.
To sumarize, Mehlman has three steps to take before he is warmly welcomed:
1) Repent for past sins
2) Be honest with the LGBT community
3) Work tirelessly to undo the damage and propel the LGBT towards equality