First published at 365gay.com on August 27, 2010
In some circles, Ken Mehlman’s coming out as gay this week was about as shocking as Rosie O’Donnell’s coming out in 2002, or Ricky Martin’s coming out earlier this year. Others were quite surprised. Still others asked, “Who’s Ken Mehlman?”
Answer: Ken Mehlman is, according to the Atlantic piece that broke the story, “the most powerful Republican in history to identify as gay.” He’s the former chair of the Republican National Committee, and he was George W. Bush’s campaign manager in 2004.
Which means that Mehlman, 43, has spent a good chunk of his adult life contributing to a party and to campaigns that engaged in explicit gay-baiting. Recall that during the November 2004 presidential election, anti-gay marriage amendments passed in eleven states—part of Karl Rove’s strategy to draw out conservative evangelical voters.
Does Mehlman regret his role in all that?
Sort of, it seems. The Atlantic piece claims that Mehlman tried to scale back the marriage-equality attacks in “private discussions” with senior Republicans, and that he acknowledges that his coming out sooner might have mitigated some of his party’s homophobia.
But the quotations from Mehlman suggest that he doesn’t fully grasp his complicity. From the Atlantic piece:
“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.”
He said that he “really wished” he had come to terms with his sexual orientation earlier, “so I could have worked against [the Federal Marriage Amendment]” and “reached out to the gay community in the way I reached out to African Americans.”
Here, Mehlman sounds at least as concerned (or more) about his failure to educate gays about Republican values as he does about his failure to educate Republicans (including himself) about gays.
In the interview, Mehlman also claims that former President Bush is “no homophobe,” which is true if by homophobe you mean someone viscerally uncomfortable with gay people. I lived in Austin when Bush was Texas Governor, and I knew people who knew him well. Gays were part of the Bushes’ social circle for years.
But homophobia doesn’t always come with open disgust, any more than racism always comes with hoods and pitchforks. Publicly, Bush, Rove, and Mehlman treated homosexuality as at best unspeakable, and at worst a threat to family and civilization. In doing so, they perpetuated the notion that gayness is a dirty little secret, something shameful and unholy.
Such homophobia is far more insidious—its damage far more pervasive—than any “God Hates Fags” rally. As someone who has experienced the closet firsthand, Mehlman ought now to understand that.
The reason that LGBT people are angry at Mehlman is that he was a key player in an organization that fostered and exploited such homophobia. The Republican party’s gay-baiting in 2004 didn’t just lead to a wave of discriminatory amendments: it also drove countless LGBT youth into the shaming closet that Mehlman is now gratefully escaping.
That’s what I want to see front and center on his regret list.
Which doesn’t mean I’m going to join the pile-on of those who say that there’s absolutely nothing that Mehlman could ever do to redeem himself. Quite the contrary.
Mehlman can’t change his past; no one can.
But if we want people to make better choices in the future, we hardly encourage their reform by telling them that they’re beyond redemption—as various bloggers have suggested regarding Mehlman.
Mehlman could easily have spent his life, as do many closeted Republicans (and Democrats, and Independents), covertly seeking romance with people who either don’t know or don’t care about his past. He has plenty of money; he could have afforded a nice closet.
By coming out in The Atlantic he has rejected that path. Good for him.
Instead, he wants to devote his energy to the fight for marriage rights. He has become actively involved in the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is working to overturn California’s Prop. 8. His professional history puts him in a unique position to reach out to Republicans and others traditionally opposed to marriage equality.
If he continues these efforts—if he uses his strategic know-how to win political battles for equality, if he goes behind “enemy lines” to fight the homophobia that his party so deftly exploited, if he works to dismantle the crippling shame of the closet—then he should be congratulated, not shunned.
It won’t erase his past. But it’s a start at a much better future. I wish him well.