I am as conflicted as most lesbians and gay men about Ken Mehlman’s coming out. I am always glad to see more openly homosexual members of the Republican Party, and Mehlman, as a former party chair and George W. Bush’s campaign manager in 2004, has more than a passing presence among party regulars. I hope his newfound self-awareness can move more members of his party in a better direction on gay equality.
But it’s every bit as true that he presided over a party that did real damage to gay equality. He says he was not aware of his own sexual orientation during the time the party he was helping to lead was exploiting the religious right’s fears and misunderstandings about homosexuality in order to get more of them to the polls to vote for candidates who proudly claimed the flag of their heterosexuality under the rubric of a vague morality. I’ve never met Mehlman and can’t prove he is wrong about himself, and I am content to accept his statement at face value.
On the other hand, that’s not much of an excuse. It presupposes that the only Republicans who might have opposed the GOP’s anti-gay tactics were homosexuals with an interest in protecting their own rights. But every reader of this site knows heterosexual Republicans who both opposed the GOP’s strategy and spoke up against it. What Mehlman saw going on in his party was wrong whether you’re straight, gay or (as the kids say) questioning.
Mehlman has now dedicated himself to fighting for marriage equality, and I say welcome to the battlefield. But we should all acknowledge that it is Mehlman and his party that set the stage. We have to deal with all those new state laws, urged on his watch, prohibiting same-sex marriage and (in many states) even civil unions.
But they’re not just laws; most of them are constitutional amendments. The GOP, under Mehlman and Karl Rove and George W. Bush, worked behind the scenes with state leaders, not just to pass laws prohibiting gays from marrying one another, but to elevate that rule to a principle of governance, on the same footing as due process of law, checks and balances, personal liberty and probable cause to search your home and seize your possessions.
At the very moment when the tide of anti-gay prejudice was beginning to turn, Mehlman and his party convinced voters to freeze the polls in place in state constitutions. The state-by-state strategy so many gay leaders were supporting was short-circuited. That was a successful political tactic, and it is the legacy of the GOP of that time.
Neither Mehlman nor even his party is solely responsible for the outcome, but Mehlman will be joining us in sorting out a mess that (whatever else can be said of it) is not attributable to the Democratic Party. Seeing the inevitable cultural change coming, and seeing short-term political advantage, Mehlman’s GOP made sure that legal change would be doubly hard to accomplish using normal democratic means down the road.
I am glad Mehlman is now on the side of equality. But the Catholic in me can’t help thinking that for his penance, he should be assigned a leading role in countering the false and misleading claims by offended voters that gays are misusing the court system by invoking the superior federal constitutional right to equal protection of the laws.