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It's a Cheney!

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By Ruth Marcus
Friday, December 8, 2006

My only regret about Mary Cheney's pregnancy is that it didn't happen earlier -- say, during the 2004 presidential race, when Cheney was working for her father's campaign and his running mate was busy trying to write discrimination against people like her into the Constitution.

Imagine a hugely pregnant Mary Cheney sitting in the vice president's box at the convention. Imagine Cheney and her partner, Heather Poe, cuddling their newborn onstage at the victory celebration.

How perfectly that would have illustrated the clanging disconnect between the Republican Party's outmoded intolerance and the benign reality of gay families today.

Better late than never. Cheney's no crusader; she has little interest in becoming the poster mom for gay parenthood. But whether she intends it or not, her pregnancy will, I think, turn out to be a watershed in public understanding and acceptance of the phenomenon. This is the Ellen DeGeneres moment of national politics.

Acceptance won't come immediately, of course, and certainly not from all quarters. The folks who have fits about "Heather Has Two Mommies" are beside themselves over "Heather Is One of Two Mommies." Especially because the other mommy is -- as Mary Cheney is inevitably described -- The Vice President's Openly Gay Daughter.

"Unconscionable," said Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America. "Her action repudiates traditional values and sets an appalling example for young people at a time when father absence is the most pressing social problem facing the nation," Crouse wrote on the TownHall.com blog. "Her child will have all the material advantages it will need, but it will still encounter the emotional devastation common to children without fathers."

"I think it's tragic that a child has been conceived with the express purpose of denying it a father," pronounced Robert Knight of the Media Research Center. The couple, he said is seeking to "create a culture that is based on sexual anarchy instead of marriage and family values."

I can understand that people -- especially those who have no personal experience with gay families -- are uncomfortable with the notion of children without a parent of each gender. What I can't understand is using words such as "unconscionable" or "tragic" to describe the choice of two people who love each other and want to create a family together.

To be a badly wanted child (one thing that's indisputable about the children of same-sex couples: the parents had to work to make it happen) in a home with two loving parents is no tragedy. If they're worried about "emotional devastation," the Crouses and Knights of the world would do better to reserve their lamentations for children in poverty, those who are abused or neglected, or for children in families splintered by divorce.

As to sexual anarchy, Mary Cheney and Heather Poe represent its antithesis. This is a couple who've been together for 15 years. In her mind, as Cheney told "Primetime Live" this year, "Heather and I already are married. We have built a home and a life together. I hope I get to spend the rest of my life with her. The way I look at it is, we're just waiting for state and federal law to catch up with us."

That could take some time, especially if Mary Cheney's political party has anything to do with it. As a resident of Virginia, which does not permit a gay parent to adopt, Poe will have no legal connection to the child that she and Cheney clearly intend to have and raise together. If the couple were to split up, Poe would have no legal right to see the child.

Virginia's newly adopted and expansively drafted constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage casts doubt on the ability of Cheney and Poe to write binding medical directives and wills. Without any legal protection, state or federal, against job discrimination -- the Bush administration opposes extending anti-discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation -- Mary Cheney could be fired simply because she is gay.

In fact, perhaps because it's less susceptible to being hijacked by the extremes, the business world is outpacing the political sphere in recognizing and responding to the new, out-of-the-closet reality of gay Americans. More than half of the Fortune 500 companies offered health benefits for domestic partners this year, up from just 28 a decade earlier, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

The latest issue of Fortune describes how companies seeking to attract and retain gay workers are offering bereavement leave if a same-sex partner dies, adoption assistance or paid leave for gay employees who have children, and relocation help for gay partners when employees are transferred. "Put another way, gay marriage -- an idea that has been banned by all but one of 27 states that have voted on it -- has become a fact of life inside many big companies," the magazine said.

Perhaps Cheney's high-profile pregnancy will help the Republican Party come to grips with those facts of life. If not, though, she's going to have to explain to her child what mommy was doing trying to help a party that doesn't believe in fairness for families like theirs.

marcusr@washpost.com


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