Ken Mehlman and the same-sex marriage debate

Ken Mehlman is the latest Republican to come out of the closet -- and admit to some tension between his sexuality and his party's ideology. Here are some other Republicans who have come out of the closet.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; 8:26 PM

Supporters of same-sex marriage have a new and unexpected advocate: Ken Mehlman, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and manager of President George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.

Mehlman, now a private citizen and businessman, disclosed that he is gay in an article published online Wednesday in the Atlantic. He said he plans to participate in a fundraiser next month for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which supports legalizing same-sex marriage.

"It's something I wish I had come to terms with earlier," Mehlman said by phone Thursday. "It has made me a happier and better person. But I wish I had had the courage to have spoken out earlier."

Mehlman, who enjoyed a remarkable rise in Republican politics, is among the most prominent officials in the party to say that he is gay. His is an announcement of the most personal nature and yet one with potential political implications - and one that is drawing charges of hypocrisy from his critics.

Mehlman said he only recently accepted that he is gay. Asked whether he would have been able to accomplish what he did in the party had he come out then, he demurred. "I'm not going to speculate on that," he said. "I don't know the answer to that."

The disclosure comes at a time of heightened debate about same-sex marriage, resulting in part from a federal court decision that overturned California's voter-approved ban on such unions, and amid evidence of shifting attitudes that over time could put the Republican Party on the wrong side of public opinion.

Views on the issue have changed dramatically in the past five years, and although there is majority support for same-sex marriage in only a handful of states, attitudes nationwide continue to shift in the direction of greater tolerance on matters of sexual orientation and same-sex marriage. There is also a sizable generation gap on the topic, with younger voters far more likely to accept and endorse same-sex marriage than older voters.

As party chairman, Mehlman worked to broaden the base of the Republican Party, particularly by trying to attract more African Americans. He went so far as to condemn the party's infamous "Southern strategy" under Richard M. Nixon, an explicit effort to use racial divisions to peel white voters from the Democratic Party in the South.

"I tried hard to expand the party into new neighborhoods," Mehlman said. He now wishes the gay community had been among them, he said.

The immediate reaction to Mehlman's announcement was generally sympathetic. He said Bush and former first lady Laura Bush, whom he told before he went public with the news, responded in a "wonderful" way. Other Republican friends have been similarly understanding, even those who disagree with his position on same-sex marriage, he said.

Mehlman was the target of criticism on some gay-related blogs Thursday, but gay rights organizations generally welcomed his statement. "What's important is that Ken has joined the fight and is willing to lend his considerable talent and influence to advance equality," Michael Cole, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. "While the past cannot be overlooked, our future is far more important and with more and more people like Ken joining our movement that future holds great promise."

After graduating from Harvard Law School, where he was a classmate of Barack Obama's, Mehlman joined Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and was dispatched to Iowa. There he quickly proved his mettle as one of the sharpest and most energetic political talents in the Bush orbit - and one well-liked by his colleagues.

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