“When you’re in the closet, it’s hard to think about things in the same kind of, I would say, holistic and honest way you think about things when you’re honest with yourself,” reflected former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who came out as gay in 2010 but has given few interviews about that personal process. A day before the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Proposition 8 and gay marriage, an issue Mehlman has devoted his energy toward promoting, he discussed his coming out and working for the cause as as board member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which took Prop 8 to federal court. He also talked about the Republican Party’s future on marriage equality, his support for a broad array of laws protecting LGBT people, how Dick Cheney could have been our first pro-equality president and the possibility of the evolution of even George W. Bush.
“It wasn’t an issue that was one that was motivating for my involvement in politics,” the former Bush 2004 campaign manager said in an interview on my SiriusXM OutQ radio program, reflecting on the election year that was punctuated by anti-gay ballot measures banning marriage in state constitutions, which Bush supported in addition to a federal marriage amendment. Mehlman has discussed in the past how he had not come to terms with his sexual orientation at the time, and last year offered a public apology. (Listen to the full interview below)
“When it came up, and I’ve said this publicly, I didn’t speak up and I wish I had,” he reiterated. “I do think though, everyone’s thinking -- and you think of [President Obama] -- has evolved. We’ve had a decade of experience. We’ve had a decade of more and more people being comfortable with who they are and coming out. What this really comes down to is human decisions that people make sometimes when they’re younger, sometimes when they’re older, to come out. And when they do that, the impact that has on their lives -- it’s just worth reflecting on that.”
Mehlman has raised millions of dollars for the cause of marriage equality and used his considerable influence in several states to help sway Republicans to vote for gay marriage. He’s also made the case for why marriage equality is a GOP issue, and gathered over 100 Republicans to sign a brief to the Supreme Court. He said he supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and other laws that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and will do what he can to help get those laws passed as well. Asked how he responds to those LGBT people who still believe he’s not done enough in the aftermath of the ’04 ballot measures, including those who suffered under withering and often harsh campaigns in the states, Mehlman looks ahead and commits himself to more civil rights work.
“What I try to do, is, I think the key to this or any decision you make in life, in any area, is to focus on the future and how you can learn from things you’ve done in the past and issues you’ve been involved in in the past,” he said. “What I’ve been trying to do over the last several years and what I will continue to try to do is make the case, not just from a Republican point of view but broadly, to use the relationships I have, to use the knowledge I have, to try to help advance where I think I can be helpful to the effort and the cause on behalf of the fact that every American ought to be treated equally under our civil laws.”
In the wake of Senator Rob Portman’s reversal on marriage equality but with the issue still causing much tension in the GOP, Mehlman is hopeful there will be continued movement on the issue and even opines that we could have had a marriage equality supporter as president in 2008 -- though one that would decidedly not have embraced by many progressives.
“I think lot of it comes down to first of all individuals and candidates having different positions,” he said. “There was some discussion, Could a Republican presidential momineee in 2016, for example, be in favor of same-sex marriage? My reaction was: Had he been 10 years younger and not had health problems we might have had a Republican nominee for president in 2008, and that was Dick Cheney.”
With so much evolution on marriage equality happening even among Republicans, is it a possibility for his former boss? Bush is, of course, an evangelical Christian who supported a federal marriage amendment, but his wife Laura and daughter Barbara have both now come out for marriage equality. Mehlman doesn’t rule it out for the former president either.
“He’s happy to be out of the public policy game,” he said of Bush. “So I’m not sure that he’ll be commenting on much public policy. But at the same time I’ll tell you this: one of the things I’ve been gratified about since I’ve gotten involved in this is that as folks think more about it, sometimes you have good conversations with them, sometimes you have tough conversations with them. A lot of people have come to recognize that this is consistent with their values. So my hope is that, as we go forward, lots of people will look at this and say, ‘You know what? As I think about this more, maybe it does make sense to say everyone in America should have access to civil marriage.’”
Listen to the full interview with Mehlman below:
Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that Mehlman was not aware of his sexual orientation when he was working as a Bush campaign manager in 2004. Mehlman tells The Huffington Post he had simply not come to terms with his sexual orientation.