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Sunday, September 05, 2010

When Coming Out, Timing Could Be Everything

Former Chairman of the Republican National Committee Ken Mehlman finally decided it was convenient for him to come out. He did so last month to Marc Ambinder, a blogger for The Atlantic. This was a Clay Aiken or Ricky Martin moment in that it was not a shocker that Ken Mehlman was gay. The difference is that these two singers never actively harmed LGBT individuals or families by overseeing policies and campaign strategies that demeaned gays. Mehlman did.

Besides his role at the RNC, Mehlman served in the first Bush Administration as White House Political Director. In 2004 he was the general chairman of the Bush reelection campaign. In this capacity, Mehlman oversaw the placement of anti-gay marriage amendments on the ballots of 11 states in 2004 to stoke fears among conservatives about same-sex marriage in an effort to drive up voter turnout and donations.

Many have credited (or blamed) this effort for the higher-than-normal turnout in Ohio that swung the state in Bush's favor, which was the tipping point of the 2004 election. He also orchestrated the failed strategy to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment—a cynical attempt to permanently enshrine bigotry against gays and lesbians—into the U.S. Constitution.

Despite Mehlman's occasional denials through the years that he was gay or his unwillingness to answer directly if he was straight, his being gay was an "open secret" in Washington, D.C. circles. Rumors were running rampant as far back as several years ago, and his unwillingness to address the issue fanned the flames, so to speak. Still, he continued as one of the most influential GOP operatives until the party lost badly in 2006 when he left.

His recent revelation was an attempt to conceal his past, closeted as it may be. “At least for me, it wasn’t like there was a light-bulb moment,” said Mehlman, a former Pikesville resident and who is now a partner and head of global public affairs for Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, a private equity firm. “The reality is, it’s taken me 43 years to come to terms with this part of my life.”

Even more disingenuous was his comment that if he were out, he could have held back the attacks on gays. Truth be told, had been out then, he wouldn't have been chair of the Republican National Committee.

Well the damage has been done, and now he wants to make amends by helping a group, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which was formed last year to support a legal challenge to Proposition 8.

Some activists, such as blogger Michael Rogers who writes on blogActive.com, which has the objective to out closeted gay officials who promote anti-gay policies, are not satisfied.

"I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for being the architect of the 2004 Bush reelection campaign," writes Rogers. "I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for his role in developing strategy that resulted in George W. Bush threatening to veto ENDA or any bill containing hate crimes laws. I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for the pressing of two Federal Marriage Amendments as political tools. I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for developing the 72-hour strategy, using homophobic churches to become political arms of the GOP before Election Day."

Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of the former vice-president, is another tool. While her father and Bush were seeking re-election and all those anti-gay marriage amendments were part of the 2004 election landscape, Ms. Cheney was silent. She could have spoken out against these initiatives either publicly or privately because her father's party was relegating her and her partner to second-class citizenship. Who would have blamed her? Fearing such potentially damaging publicity, especially from someone who was actively working on the campaign, the GOP clearly was in prevent-defense mode by making her virtually invisible during the 2004 Republican Convention.

But her silence was deafening until…she emerged on a bookselling tour to make Mary Cheney rich. That was the moment she decided to publicly come out for marriage equality safely after the election. Here is where opportunism, greed and hypocrisy intersect. David Letterman called her out on this while she was a guest on his show. He asked that important question: why wait for the book tour? She was befuddled, and couldn't mumble a coherent answer while the audience cheered at an ear-splitting level.

This wasn't a matter of Mary Cheney's coming out of the closet as Ken Mehlman did; it was more about the timing of her "activism." Regardless, neither of these individuals came forward in time to do us any good, or in Mehlman's situation, to prevent any harm.

The more people that do come out of the closet, the better it is for us as we strive for equality and non-discrimination. Friends, neighbors, co-workers, business contacts, family members—all those touching our lives—are more apt to support us if they know us personally. This widens the circle of those affected by pro- and anti-gay policies so politicians are mistaken if they think it is limited strictly to the LGBT population. That is why we should welcome those who have taken that step.

But sometimes, as in the case of Ken Mehlman, the timing of the decision is more important than the decision itself.


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