Last night, Ken Mehlman, the man who orchestrated George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign–including, we can presume, its electorally popular anti-gay positions–came out as gay himself. Mehlman says he’s now working with American Foundation for Equal Rights to advocate for marriage equality.
The National Organization for Marriage immediately attacked Mehlman for “abdicating core Republican values.” But mainstream Republicans, whose bread and butter in recent years has relied on stoking anti-gay resentments, have been for the most part supportive of Mehlman personally and silent on his new advocacy work.
That’s not surprising. Earlier this week, People For’s president, Michael B. Keegan, wrote a piece in the Huffington Post on how anti-gay politics are increasingly confined to the Republican party’s extreme-right fringe…and the fringe is beginning to see the writing on the wall:
For years, the Right has watched its anti-gay agenda lose credibility as public acceptance of gays and lesbians has steadily grown and intolerance has declined. And that trend is going strong, as young people of all political stripes are more likely to know gay people and more willing to grant them equal rights and opportunities, including the right to marriage. A CNN poll this month found that a majority of Americans think gays and lesbians should have the right to marry–the first time gay marriage dissenters had slipped solidly into the minority in a national poll. Even in California, where Proposition 8 passed on the ballot in 2008, a poll earlier this year found a majority now support same sex marriage rights. Indeed, this change is even visible on the Right, where the fight against equality is being waged by an increasingly marginalized movement. Who would have ever thought that Ann Coulter would be booted from a right-wing conference for being "too gay friendly"?
These swift changes in the GOP from gay bashing a la Patrick Buchanan’s 1992 convention speech towards tolerance and even support of gay equality is both astonishing and alarming to elements of the far right. Several prominent social conservatives have decried these changes. WorldNetDaily Editor David Kupelian recently wrote “Much of conservatism has now morphed into libertarianism…even high profile conservative warriors seem to be abandoning the gay issue” and went on to list recent examples of gay rights making progress within the GOP such as Glenn Beck’s announcement that gay marriage presents no threat to America, Ann Coulter addressing the gay conservative group GOProud, and CPAC’s refusal to ban GOProud. Social conservative Robert Knight bemoaned the fact that Republicans are increasingly supportive of gay equality in his column “Smarter than God”; and the American Family Association’s radio host Bryan Fischer also blasted Republicans for failing to sufficiently support the anti-gay cause.
This past week the Washington Blade even published an article titled “Conservatives take the lead in marriage fight” arguing that libertarian-leaning conservatives are advancing gay rights, perhaps more so than Democrats. Who would have thought in 1992 we would one day see Republicans lauded by the gay press?
This shift toward acceptance—and away from the divisive anti-gay politics exemplified by Bush’s campaign strategy—is clearly taking place. But it’s far from over. Even if mainstream conservatives are starting to shy away from anti-gay politics, the mess that the homophobic politics of the past decades has left is still here, and still harmful. If members of the party that exploited homophobia for years to create our strongly anti-gay status quo remain silent on gay rights, they condone discrimination.
The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy still keeps gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. Hundreds of hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation are committed each year—but all but 18 Republicans in the House and five in the Senate opposed the bill last year that expanded hate crimes laws to prevent these. 30 states have passed constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage—11 of these were put on the ballot in an effort to draw voters for Bush and his fellow Republicans in 2004.
Asked by the Advocate about his role in crafting the strategy that led to those 11 constitutional amendments, Mehlman said, “I can’t change that – it is something I wish I could and I can only try to be helpful in the future.”
Mehlman, whatever you think of his past actions, is right—there is a lot of positive work that needs to be done to undo the damaging anti-gay crusades of the past. It’s great that at least some in the Republican Party are beginning to accept gay people, or at least are refraining from being virulently homophobic. But they won’t be off the hook until they start working to actively undo the destructive policies of the past.
And, as Gabriel Arana points out, though Mehlman’s political change of heart was tied up with his own personal struggle, “you don’t have to be gay to do the right thing.”