What Ken Mehlman Can Learn About Coming Out

Former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman's recent but not wholly unexpected admission that he is gay has been greeted with mixed reactions within the gay rights movement.

While rights advocates have welcomed the emergence of a prominent Republican to the cause (especially one with a Rolodex of big donor contacts), an equally common refrain is that Mehlman missed the moment when his voice was most needed. There must be, they stress, some penance for his involvement with the anti-gay marriage initiatives launched by the Republican Party he ran.

"I am wiling to give Ken the benefit of the doubt that he went through a long process which resulted, only recently, in feeling comfortable enough to share," said Hilary Rosen, a prominent Democratic consultant who is gay. "But he perpetrated some real harm on LGBT Americans and I think he must atone for those sins. Is that a double standard for him than for someone else coming out, you bet. But his powerful position and homophobic activities (or acquiescence when others acted) in the Republican Party raises the bar pretty high for how he goes forward in his new life."

Speaking to the Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel on Wednesday, Mehlman declined to reflect on those activities that drew Rosen's ire.

"I'm one person," he said. "I'm not in politics anymore. I'm a private citizen."

His focus remained on the work ahead, he stressed, including helping to carry the burden of a lengthy legal challenge to California's gay marriage ban. But should he be interested in greater acceptance within the LBGT community, there are contemporary templates from which to draw lessons.

Well before he founded the progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America, David Brock was best known as one of sharpest flamethrowers in the conservative media infrastructure. His book "The Real Anita Hill," as well as the lengthy articles he penned on various Clinton-era scandals, changed the tone of politcs, spurred lengthy investigations, and earned him the indemnity of the liberal movement he now calls home.

Along the way, he had a come-to-Jesus moment. In the summer of 1997, Brock wrote a mea culpa in Esquire magazine titled "Confessions of a Right-Wing Hit Man." Less than a year later, writing in the same magazine, he apologized for his role as kindling in the Troopergate scandal. By 2001, he had published a memoir "Blinded by the Right." An apology to Hill came shortly thereafter, as did another book. In May 2004 he completed the evolution by launching Media Matters.

The analogies between that journey of contrition and the one Mehlman launched on Wednesday aren't perfect. There is a more personal introspection involved with the latter. Brock's conversion, likewise, was politically broader than Mehlman's, who remains, it appears, as conservative as ever.

But speaking to the Huffington Post on Thursday, the Media Matters chief recalled a similarly tepid reception he received upon disavowing his previous positions.

"I certainly had, in starting Media Matters, an issue of, I guess you would call, baggage from the past. I had clearly done some things that were wrong," Brock said. "Were there still some raw feelings about [what I had written]? I would say probably so... But I never thought that their concerns were illegitimate. But that was because I wanted to ground myself. I didn't try and have it both ways. The people in the press who said back in '94 that I was a sleaze ball were right."

"It was a difficult thing to have been extremely controversial and ended up agreeing with all your critics," he added.

Brock's transition was aided by the willingness of his previous targets to absolve him of his transgressions. He recalled that the Clintons "were incredibly gracious about it all" despite his work to make their political lives miserable. Other members of the Democratic Party were more than pleased that he was taking his keen understanding of the modern media and putting it to use for progressive causes.

Mehlman, likewise, seems likely to have defenders within the gay community. Chad Griffin, the co-founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group funding the challenge to California's Prop 8, said he could care less "where Ken was four-to-five-to-six years ago. I'm just thankful that he's with us today."

John Aravosis, the prominent gay activist and blogger, called the announcement a "major coup" while acknowledging the trepidation that others felt.

"People called us sell outs for saying that it was huge that Ted Olson [the conservative lawyer challenging Prop 8] was jumping on board... today, he is a hero in the gay community," he said. "Ken has a ways to go before he hits hero status. But I do think it is a huge coup for the community."

The steps Aravosis advised Mehlman to take on his route to "hero status" include embracing the spotlight he has now grabbed. Among prominent gay rights officials, there is a particular scorn for those gay Republicans who have failed to call out their party's vilification of their sexual orientation. The name Mary Cheney is often blurted out with disgust when talk turns towards those who have been sedentary.

For Brock, however, the advice for Mehlman is more cerebral than political. Trust, he cautions, is a difficult commodity to earn. And being unwilling to acknowledge past transgressions won't earn you any chits.

"To me, being as honest about what you were involved in, in the past, and as upfront about that is a critical thing in a successful transition. And to try and hold on to some notion that maybe it wasn't as bad as it was seems to me not to be right," he said. "You can say you got involved with bad people. You can blame others. But at the end of the day if the decisions you made are bad decisions, you have to admit you made them."