Ken Mehlman, President Bush's campaign manager in 2004 and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has told family and associates that he is gay.
Mehlman arrived at this conclusion about his identity fairly recently, he said in an interview. He agreed to answer a reporter's questions, he said, because, now in private life, he wants to become an advocate for gay marriage and anticipated that questions would arise about his participation in a late-September fundraiser for the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the group that supported the legal challenge to California's ballot initiative against gay marriage, Proposition 8.
"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."
Privately, in off-the-record conversations with this reporter over the years, Mehlman voiced support for civil unions and told of how, in private discussions with senior Republican officials, he beat back efforts to attack same-sex marriage. He insisted, too, that President Bush "was no homophobe." 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."
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.
"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 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."
Mehlman is taking a lot of criticism; check out the hateful comments at the end of The Atlantic article. Jim Burroway at Box Turtle Bulletin shows some class, however:
I think this is a good time for me to interject my own thoughts here. I definitely think that Mehlman should have come out earlier, and I fully believe that harsh criticisms of his tacit support for GOP gay-bashing during the 2004 and 2006 campaigns are fully warrented. I further believe that Mehlman has a lot of ground to cover in order to make up for his past sins.
But the first step in making up that ground comes in his coming out. Ambinder likens it this way: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.I’m no longer religious, but this reminds me of a proverb in Luke, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Any time someone serves as a stumbling block to LGBT equality and dignity changes course, our best response would be to welcome the good news. Unfortunately, we’re not always up for our best responses. Mehlman does have a lot to make up for, but this first step is not insignificant.
And his second step isn’t small potatoes either. He is chairing a fundraiser for Americans for Equal Rights (AFER), the organization behind the lawsuit which has successfully challenged Prop 8 in Federal Court. That fundraiser has already needed $1 million for the effort.
Mehlman has a lot to make up for. The 2004 and 2006 campaigns that he was directly involved in — and in which he colluded or directed terrible vilificaiton directed toward fellow LGBT people — caused considerable damage to to his fellow Americans, and they will rightly demand accountability. In order to truly heal those wounds, that does need to be his next major step.
But as we wait for that to come (and we shouldn’t have to wait too long for it) , let me say this: welcome out, Ken Mehlman. And let the rejoicing — and acts of contrition — begin.
UPDATE: Dan Blatt at GayPatriot comments:
My hope (and prayer) right now for Ken Mehlman is that he can count on his friends and family for the next few days until the hullabaloo about his coming out has passed. It’s never easy to have your private life become public information.
To be sure, as a public face for the Bush Administration and the GOP, he’s used by now to the bile of the left, so he should be prepared to face their taunts and attacks. But, I wonder if he’s thinking, “If I could just show them I’m not the demon they believe me to be, maybe then, by golly, they’ll like me, they’ll really like me.”
No, Ken, no, they won’t. We’ve all thought that. Or at least most of us on the gay right have. We’ve all wondered what we could do to end the animosity coming at us from certain segments of the left. To be sure, some (many, perhaps) gay liberals will surprise you and will treat you with decency and dignity despite disagreeing with you on matters political.
All that said, unless you do a full David Brock, you won’t end the bile coming from the gay left. And to do the full Brock, you not only have to toe the line on gay issues, but also publicly, prolifically and regularly repudiate the right.
Remember, most straight conservatives won’t treat you any differently once you’ve come out as gay. We don’t expect ideological rigidity from our allies nor demand social conformity from our friends.
Meanwhile, many gays on the left of the political spectrum are showing no sympathy for Mehlman’s journey and tossing out terms that one reserves for one’s bitterest enemies — and tosses out when throwing a temper tantrum. They’re not interested in Ken as a person; they just need someone on whom to project their own animosities.