Mary Cheney's Step Forward

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By Elizabeth Birch and Hilary Rosen
Monday, May 8, 2006

Mary Cheney's new book is out. The author herself has been out as a lesbian for many years. In fact, before her father ran for vice president, she was the marketing liaison to the gay and lesbian community for Coors Brewing Co. Now she has published a book in which she says publicly for the first time that she disagrees with the positions President Bush has taken with respect to gay and lesbian issues.

We had presumed that was the case but are certainly glad to hear it. We admit we have been tough on Cheney over the years. This week we've debated each other over the wrongs we feel her family and their allies have perpetrated on the gay and lesbian community and what the impact of her current activities will be.

For the past 12 years, like clockwork, GOP strategists have hauled out the issue of marriage between same-sex partners each election year. (Of course they tend not to focus on causes -- such as employment nondiscrimination -- that enjoy widespread public support.) And, while cynical, heartless and exploitative, it has actually worked to fan the flames of bias, energize the Republican base and create timidity in those elected officials who might want to help us.

Until now, in the calculus of choosing between her father and the realities of her own life, Cheney has apparently opted to be a loyal daughter. It is her family's version of "What will the neighbors say?" played out on a grand national political stage, with the neighbors being the hard-core conservative voters of the Republican Party. Mary Cheney has not just stood by but actively worked as a paid campaign operative to reelect the Bush-Cheney-GOP ticket. So the resentment runs deep.

Yet we've concluded that at this moment in time, the past doesn't seem nearly as important as the future. And though the gay movement deserves credit for much of the acceptance she is receiving, Mary's presence on the national stage -- the daughter of the vice president of the United States discussing issues related to our lives -- is most welcome and has the potential to be a transforming moment for all Americans.

There are rarely "teachable" moments in our society today unless there is a compelling personal story. Cheney's personal story is not much different from those of many of the men and women we know: lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT). It includes coming out to parents at an early age and being accepted as a loving child. The relationship of Mary and her partner, Heather Poe, seems to have become a part of the Cheney household. In fact, she says it is a marriage. What is compelling is that she has achieved this level of "normality" as the lesbian daughter of some of the most famous, important and conservative parents in America.

A teachable moment for America lies in knowing that this is not the experience of every such person and that our country can do something to help. Young people are thrown out of families and churches, and are beaten at schools, because of lack of acceptance. People are fired from their jobs or are afraid to come out at work. For many, the implications of not being able to marry means that one partner goes through a health crisis without the insurance of the other, that children of surviving spouses may lose the only parent they have ever known because of custody battles, that inheritance or Social Security does not exist for LGBT spouses.

All of these instances occur not because people are inherently bigoted but because the laws of our country do not protect the rights of LGBT people and their families. Despite the comfort of her family, Cheney's relationship with Poe has no legal protections either.

We applaud Mary Cheney's leap onto the national stage. The timing of the book's release is a welcome boon to the effort to defeat (for the second time) the White House-endorsed Federal Marriage Amendment, which is before Congress and would put discrimination against gay and lesbian families into the Constitution. The vote has once again been timed by the congressional Republican leadership to exploit the midterm elections.

Mary is leading the Cheney family to bring new understanding to dinner-table discussions across the land. We look forward to the Cheney family embracing this teachable moment, not just on the book tour but in election halls, state legislatures and Congress.

Elizabeth Birch, former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, is CEO of KidRo Productions. Hilary Rosen, a former CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, is a partner in Berman Rosen Global Strategies.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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