Kenneth Mehlman's Gay-Marriage Mission: The New Yorker
The New Yorker: Ken Mehlman’s Gay- Marriage Mission Posted by Richard Socarides, February 26, 2013 on The New Yorker
The news, on the front page of the Times this morning, that dozens of leading Republicans hadsigned an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the case of Proposition 8, the California gay-marriage ban, merited the A1 treatment that it received. Despite their party and their own pastpositions, Jon Huntsman, Meg Whitman, Ken Duberstein, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said thatthey supported a Constitutional right to same-sex marriage. This comes two days before theObama Administration must decide whether it is ready to file a similar brief. In the most high-profile Supreme Court case of the year, with the future of how we view civil rights and treat ourfellow-citizens at stake, someone had quietly engineered enough prominent conservatives fromthe opposition party to sign onto a legal brief supporting full equality for gay and lesbianAmericans. That someone was Ken Mehlman, the openly gay former political director of theGeorge W. Bush White House, the campaign manager for Bush’s 2004 reëlection campaign,and the former chairman of the Republican National Committee.When Ken Mehlman came out of the closet, in August, 2010, announcing his sexual orientationto Marc Ambinder, in an Atlantic article, not everyone was completely surprised. But it didrepresent something of a turning point. For the first time, the gay and lesbian politicalcommunity had a real conservative leader among its ranks, and you knew—if you knewanything about Ken Mehlman—that things would be different from then on.It’s not just that Ken Mehlman is a prominent Republican, which makes him an important assetto—and, now, organizer in—the gay-rights movement; it’s that he is one of the smartest politicaloperatives anywhere in the country right now, and that he understands better than perhapsanyone how moderate and persuadable Republicans think. These are the very people the gay-rights movement is now trying to speak to. As Mehlman told the Times reporter Sheryl GayStolberg, “We are trying to say to the Court that we are judicial and political conservatives, andit is consistent with our values and philosophy for you to overturn Proposition 8.”
The summer of his coming out, I asked Mehlman what he planned to do now that his sexualorientation was public. He told me that while he wanted to be an advocate and work for changeand greater acceptance, he thought that he should first spend some time listening and learning.And, for a while, Mehlman kept a fairly low profile. They were many calls for him to apologizedirectly to the gay community for past misdeeds, some real and others imagined. When hecame out he had said, “I can’t change the fact that I wasn’t in this place personally when I wasin politics, and I genuinely regret that. It was very hard, personally.” (As an out democraticstaffer to President Bill Clinton when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act, I understand someof what this might have been like for him.) Later, in May of 2012, after he had done substantialbehind-the-scenes work to advance the cause of gay equality, he expanded on that: “At apersonal level, I wish I had spoken out against the [anti-gay] effort… As I’ve been involved inthe fight for marriage equality, one of the things I’ve learned is how many people were harmedby the campaigns in which I was involved. I apologize to them and tell them I am sorry. Whilethere have been recent victories, this could still be a long struggle in which there will besetbacks, and I’ll do my part to be helpful.”Mehlman, now an investment banker by day, is on the board of the American Foundation forEqual Rights, the group that has organized the challenge to Proposition 8, and which hired thesuperlawyers Ted Olson and David Boies to spearhead it. He has worked with the other mostprominent national organization fighting for gay marriage, the New York-based Freedom toMarry, and has offered his help to pretty much in the effort anyone who wants it. (I have workedwith the same organizations.) He was active in the past election on the side of advocates whowon in all four states where marriage equality was on the ballot: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota,and Washington State. Perhaps he will never be able to fully undo the 2004 effort byRepublicans to put anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendments through in order to bring outthe conservative base vote. But it will not be for lack of trying.
How was Ken Mehlman able to go to all of these people who signed this brief for gay equalityand ask them for help? It was because he had worked with and known many of them fordecades, and because now they finally knew him. It is often said that the most importantpolitical act any gay person can take is to come out of the closet. Telling your family, friends,neighbors, and business associates who you really are makes people aware that anti-gaydiscrimination is discrimination against someone they know, like, and respect. It’s not easy tocome out of the closet at any age. It’s certainly not easy if you’re a teen-ager living in anintolerant community. But it also must have taken courage to come out of the closet as amiddle-aged Republican who had been so prominent on the conservative side of the politicaldebate. There were no former Republican Presidents who signed on to the brief, nor anyformer Republican attorneys general, but one gets the feeling that it won’t be long now.Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty.Original article on The New Yorker: Ken Mehlman’s Gay-Marriage Mission