washingtonpost.com  > Politics > Elections > 2004 Election

What Everybody Doesn't Know About Mary Cheney

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2004; Page C01

Mary Cheney: Somewhere out there she exists, the actual Mary Cheney, child of the nondisclosed location, the one who's the luh-luh-lesbian. She's become this eternal and complicated mystery for people who are gay, and without ever really knowing her or hearing from her, they've spent four years writing poems, articles and protest songs about her. They've implored her with open letters in forums she may or may not ever read. They've waved signs with her name, started Web sites and put her on a milk carton as though she were a missing child. Oh, Mary Cheney, speak to us.

Then, after last week's final presidential debate, the subject of Mary went surprisingly national, and she became her very own polling question: Is it okay to drag Mary into this, as the Kerry-Edwards ticket has done?

Mary Cheney, left, at the GOP convention with partner Heather Poe. (Charlie Neibergall -- AP)

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In the Oct. 14 Washington Post tracking poll, 64 percent of likely voters said no, it was "inappropriate," and you get the feeling that something like this makes most Americans feel kinda ooky. People don't like to say the word lesbian, especially some mothers and fathers of lesbians. The word summons up some outdated, maternal plea -- Couldn't you wear a skirt just this once? Your father is running for office.

Mary, in pantsuits, with her life partner Heather Poe, transcends even that small drama of the American family. She is here but not here. Sometimes onstage, sometimes not, depending on the stage and the target audience. On some level, the parent in everyone recoils when you start talking about the other guy's kid, even though Mary is 35, and is in charge of operations at her father's campaign office.

Vice President Cheney expressed outrage the day after Sen. John Kerry brought it up ("Dick Cheney's daughter who is a" -- the pause here was a fraction of time that might as well have been 10 seconds -- "lesbian," Kerry had said, in response to a question about whether lesbians and gay men are born or choose to be homosexuals) in the last presidential debate, just a week after Sen. John Edwards brought it up in the vice presidential debate. Lynne Cheney, Mary's mother, was even more incensed. She called it "a cheap and tawdry political trick. . . . The only thing I can conclude is he's not a good man. I'm speaking as a mom." (How dare they bring her daughter into this . . . this . . . political debate. In a presidential election no less.)

"How incredibly sad for Mary Cheney, the lesbian in question. And not for the reasons that her parents and the pundits have been screaming about," journalist Dave Cullen wrote on Salon.com, deftly describing his own offense at the latest chapter in the quiet saga of Mary. "It is not an insult to call a proudly public lesbian a lesbian. It's an insult to gasp when someone calls her a lesbian. . . . You're embarrassed for us. And it's infuriating."

This is what Mary does. She inspires loads of typing and talking -- reading the "Cheney tea leaves," journalist Rex Wockner calls it in his column this week on 365gay.com, a popular gay Web site. Wockner has read a lot of Cheney tea leaves in his time, and it is exactly that -- studying facial expressions. Combing the clips looking for the cloaked remark about Mary, or, in the rarest case, something actually spoken by Mary herself. Looking for the content in statements or body language of the Cheney family up on the dais, indulging in both the ironies and the strange comedy of it.

Lesbian activist Chastity Bono apparently solved the conflict with her sexual orientation and her father's politics back when her father, Sonny, a Republican, was supporting the Defense of Marriage Act and other laws that could restrict gay rights. "I was very naive in my thinking," she said in a 2000 interview with the Advocate, a gay newsmagazine, when asked to explain what life must have been like for Mary, back in the last election, when Lynne Cheney was still huffily denying, to Cokie Roberts and others, that Mary had even come out of the closet.

"I still kind of believed in this idea of politicians caring about people and voting based on a belief system of their own, as opposed to really a bunch of people who are really trying to keep their jobs," Chastity Bono said. "[Politicians] are really concerned with power and career, and that completely takes over anything else."

Andrew Sullivan, the gay conservative pundit and obsessive blogger, takes a stab at the elusive Meaning of Mary:

"The Cheneys didn't respond to . . . [Republican senatorial candidate] Alan Keyes' direct insult of their own daughter in Illinois. They have not voiced objections to a single right-wing piece of homophobia in this campaign," Sullivan posted Saturday.

"But they are outraged that Kerry mentioned the simple fact of their daughter's openly gay identity. What complete b.s. . . . The GOP is run, in part, by gay men and women, its families are full of gay people, and yet it is institutionally opposed to even the most basic protections for gay couples. You can keep up a policy based on rank hypocrisy for only so long. And then it tumbles like a house of cards. Kerry just pulled one card from out of the bottom of the heap. Watch the edifice of double standards slowly implode. Gay people and their supporters will no longer acquiesce in this charade. Why on earth should we?"

So. Mary is a lesbian.

Lesbian, lesbian, lesbian. (Do you have to keep saying lesbian?) This is all she may ever be, at least in the history books. Before she became a public enigma, she used to earn a nice living as a corporate liaison for Coors Brewing Co., going into gay bars (sometimes with Mr. International Leather 1999, who would wear his chaps and straps, according to the Advocate) to convince everyone that Coors had changed. For a long time, gay people were implored by activists to boycott Coors, based on its funding of anti-gay causes. Mary got in there, talked about Coors's new domestic-partner benefits for employees. Mary said, here, try a Coors. She was good at that, and the boycott wafted away, and you didn't see as much Bud Light in gay bars.

Mary is mythic, perhaps tragic, and don't forget sapphic. The conundrum for the liberal-hearted, stereotypical homo voter is this: She likes being Republican. She is a lesbian Republican.

One day, years from now, Mary may explain it to us. For now it's a tale about a woman trapped in a tower circled by bats. This is a common gay conceit, a misconception: Mary needs to be freed from all this. But just when you think she's rescued, she's back in that fortress again.

Finally you realize that she returns there voluntarily, that she is not trapped, that she was born and raised in the tower. Absent any words from Mary herself, you can only assume that she would be the first to tell you she belongs there.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company