The closet is a sad, twisted place for a gay or lesbian person. I understand why people refuse to come out (the fear of losing their family, their jobs, their church) — all the things that seem to make life livable. Some, however, are so deep in the closet that even admitting any affinity with gays and lesbians is forbidden fruit—and life in the closet means a life spent crusading against those who would dare to live life out in the open.
Such is the tale of Ken Mehlman, President Bush’s campaign manager in 2004 and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mehlman held leadership roles in the Republican Party as it began its concerted anti-gay efforts—working to get state gay marriage bans on the ballot in 2004 and 2006 to ensure strong Republican turnout at the polls.
Now, Mehlman, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, has come out:
“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.”
The entire interview is filled with Mehlman’s regrets at not coming out sooner.
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.”
But, he said, he had to stay in the closet while working for the GOP because “he could not, as an individual Republican, go against the party consensus.” Some people are applauding Mehlman for finally telling the truth, but I am completely disgusted by him, and any gay or lesbian person who remains closeted in the Republican Party because they cannot “go against the party consensus.”
As a Christian, I realize that redemption is always available, and we must forgive 70 times 7 times, but, repentance is also part of that redemption—and Mehlman has a lot of sin to make up for.
His sexuality has long been the source of rumors over the years, but Mehlman always denied it or skirted the issue. Now, he wants the gay and lesbian community, so deeply wounded by his work against it, to embrace him as an ally as he begins work on legalizing same-sex marriage after working to put so many barriers in place.
What angers me most, however, is that gay and lesbian people ever feel the need to be in the closet in the first place. Truth be told, Mehlman is as much victim as he is villain. He fell for the lies, perpetrated mainly by the religious right, that being gay is somehow sick, shameful, and sinful. He apparently grappled with this issue for many years, but his love of money and power apparently overpowered any temptation to authenticity. It’s amazing what kind of feelings one can snuff out when given the right motivation of power and prestige.
Mehlman used that power to continue to victimize the gay and lesbian community, and that harm will be felt for many more years, despite Mehlman’s repentance. If he is going to make good on this coming out, he must work diligently to undo the harm that he had a hand in creating, and work to dismantle the closet for all gays and lesbians once and for all.
His first step could be to stop funding anti-gay candidates. Change.org notes that Mehlman has financially supported a host of candidates hostile to gay and lesbian rights including “Missouri Republican Roy Blunt, who has voted to add a marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage, as well as to ban gay adoption” and “Ben Quayle, who is running for Congress in Arizona who just sent out a mailer to voters touting his opposition to marriage equality.”
Mehlman completely contradicts himself by remaining in the GOP and becoming that “individual Republican,” willing to “go against the party consensus.”
He said that he plans to be an advocate for gay rights within the GOP, that he remains proud to be a Republican, and that his political identity is not defined by any one issue.
“What I will try to do is to persuade people, when I have conversations with them, that it is consistent with our party’s philosophy, whether it’s the principle of individual freedom, or limited government, or encouraging adults who love each other and who want to make a lifelong commitment to each other to get married.”
“I hope that we, as a party, would welcome gay and lesbian supporters. I also think there needs to be, in the gay community, robust and bipartisan support [for] marriage rights.”
While I suppose that’s a lofty and admirable goal, now that Mehlman faces no real financial threat from his stand, he will nonetheless face an uphill climb, especially if he continues to support anti-gay candidates under the “my political identity is not defined by one issue” cop-out used by all gay Republicans I know. Sadly, though, his fiercest opposition will most likely be other closeted gay Republicans—and closeted Christian conservatives—still cowering in fear and self-loathing.