Mending Mehlman

Redemption may be a more constructive force than scorn in the wake of one man's outing

When news broke last week that former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman had announced he is gay in an interview with Marc Ambinder in The Atlantic, one friend expressed surprise because he thought Mehlman was already out. Another friend said he figured Mehlman was gay years ago from the way he eyed men at the gym. Mehlman’s orientation was certainly an open secret in Washington.

On one hand, coming out is a good first step. On the other hand, Mehlman cannot expect instant forgiveness from the people he helped demonize. In giving Mehlman a Roy Cohn Award last week, Mike Rogers of BlogActive wrote:

”I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for being the architect of the 2004 Bush re-election campaign … that he is sorry for his role in developing strategy that resulted in George W. Bush threatening to veto ENDA or any bill containing hate crimes laws … that he is sorry for the pressing of two Federal Marriage Amendments as political tools … that he is sorry for developing the 72-hour strategy, using homophobic churches to become political arms of the GOP before Election Day.”

Rogers also called on Mehlman to sell his $3.77 million condo in Chelsea ”and donate the funds to the causes he worked against so hard for all those years.” I agree with the call for restitution, but I think it is more constructive to encourage efforts Mehlman has already begun in using his resources and contacts to undo his prior damage and advance the rights of gay families.

In response to Mehlman’s self-outing, Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director R. Clarke Cooper wrote, ”Nothing presents a better argument for the equality of gay and lesbian citizens than the reality of our lives as responsible members of society.” Fair enough; but Cooper is too quick to gloss over Mehlman’s past behavior, which was anything but responsible.

Former congressman Jim Kolbe welcomes Mehlman into the chorus of those ”advocating for the American value of inclusion.” He adds, ”This is not a time for playing politics; it is a time for us all to join together … to repeal the failed ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, to pass workplace non-discrimination, and to recognize all committed relationships. The responsibility for making this happen lies with the Democratic leadership in Congress and in the White House….”

So Kolbe says this is no time to play politics, then tacitly blames the Democrats for their difficulty in overcoming Republican obstructionism. This prompts me to ask why we should regard as allies people who continue helping candidates from a party increasingly run not by small-government conservatives but by know-nothings, nativists and theocrats, merely if they settle on a different minority (say, Muslims or Mexicans) to scapegoat.

Still, it is good that Mehlman is helping the American Foundation for Equal Rights in the fight for marriage equality. That is some repentance (and timely, with the High Holy Days approaching). If our only response is unremitting bitterness, we create a disincentive for other anti-gay closet cases to redeem themselves. And Kolbe is right that passing a pro-gay agenda requires broad cooperation.

So, Ken, I hope you take it in stride that gay people need to vent their anger at you for the considerable harm that you caused us. David Brock, a former right-wing smear artist who repented of his ways and launched Media Matters as a corrective, is an example of the possibility of redemption. In time, if you devote as much talent and energy to winning our equality as you previously did to disenfranchising us, forgiveness may follow. But do it not for that. Do it for the generations to come. Do it for your own soul.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared on Salon.com and the Independent Gay Forum. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.

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