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In one of my all-time favorite movies, Magnolia, multiple characters reflect on the mistakes and miscues of their past with the saying, ”We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”
So, it would seem, Ken Mehlman is through with his past, but his past isn’t through with us.
Six years after he led one of the most brazenly anti-gay efforts in recent memory, pushing a series of state constitutional amendments that codified the lives of LGBT people as second-class citizens in order to help re-elect President George W. Bush, Mehlman has decided to exit his already translucent closet to become an activist for marriage equality.
To some, this is an opportunity for a man to make right the wrongs of his life. To others, more cynical, it’s an unforgivable example of the worst behavior by the Washington political players who can casually trample the rights and lives of people in their own personal quest for political power.
For the record, I have quite a cynical streak.
I know there are plenty in our community eager to embrace Mehlman, for reasons either redemptive or political. The political argument goes that Mehlman brings a unique level of contacts and visibility to the issue of marriage equality that can assist our community (and, presumably, help undo the damage he had such a hand in creating).
Others, myself included, are viscerally angry that Mehlman — who, during his stint as head of the GOP, was subject to an outing campaign by Mike Rogers — has now decided to come out. In his gay-debut interview with The Atlantic‘s Marc Ambinder, Mehlman says, ”I can’t change the fact that I wasn’t in this place personally when I was in politics, and I genuinely regret that. It was very hard, personally.”
That remark encapsulates why, for me, Mehlman’s actions are so infuriating. He and I are basically the same age, and gay men of our generation faced a lot of difficult choices when we were young about our orientation and our careers. Some, like me, came out sooner; others came out later. I don’t begrudge most people their own paths out of the shame and fear of the closet.
But we all bear responsibility for the choices we make, especially when one chooses to improve one’s own life at the expense of others. Mehlman’s plea for understanding that it was ”very hard, personally,” rings hollow when compared to the lives of those who chose to live their lives honestly, even when that choice ended careers or divided families.
Choices have consequences. The consequences of Mehlman’s choices are enshrined in the constitutions of multiple states — including my own home state of Kentucky — a web of treachery that will take decades to undo (absent a Supreme Court decision for marriage equality, which no one should hold their breath for).
Where some may see in Mehlman a pragmatic tool for the hardball political arena, I see a political blood diamond, a commodity so tainted by its past that it’s odious to employ in the present.
The fight for LGBT equality has to be about more than political warfare, more than collecting checks from rich benefactors. Pragmatism has its place, yet so does principle.
Mehlman may someday find redemption enough to cleanse the taint of his past, but that redemption should be earned, not bought.
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