WASHINGTON — News that a former campaign chairman for George W. Bush is gay and now a champion for same-sex marriage is pleasing, angering and perplexing gay rights activists and politicians alike in the United States.
Ken Mehlman, Bush’s campaign kingpin in 2004 and one-time chairman of the Republican National Committee, has announced he’s gay and is helping to raise significant funds in support of same-sex marriage. This despite presiding over an election strategy that pushed anti-same sex marriage amendments in 11 states just six years ago.
“At least for me, it wasn’t like there was a light-bulb moment,” he said in an interview with The Atlantic magazine released earlier this week.
“It was an evolutionary process. The reality is, it’s taken me 43 years to come to terms with this part of my life. The process has been something that has made me a happier and better person. It’s something I wish I had done years ago.”
Mehlman is among a string of conservatives who have either fully advocated same-sex marriage in recent months or have opined that it doesn’t pose a threat to traditional marriage, including political wives Laura Bush and Cindy McCain and right-wing commentators Glenn Beck and Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
Many welcomed the announcement, saying it proves the time has come for marriage equality in the United States.
“He’s the latest in a wave of self-identified conservatives speaking up in support of the freedom to marry,” said Evan Wilson, author of “Why Marriage Matters” and director of the “Freedom to Marry” advocacy group.
“They’re all speaking out, and it’s in part because the more people have had a chance to see marriage for real in places like Canada, South Africa, Spain and states like Iowa and Massachusetts, the more they very quickly realize that there’s a complete lack of evidence that such a basic human right should be denied.
“Canada passed that threshold a long time ago, but we’re getting there as well. And Mehlman and others are reflecting this growing understanding of the lack of any good reason for denying the freedom of marriage.”
That’s not how some Republicans see it.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, told the gay publication The Advocate that Mehlman was “abdicating core Republican beliefs” in supporting an effort to challenge California’s anti-same-sex marriage law.
Brown added that same-sex marriage advocates were using high-profile conservatives to “create an impression that there is an inevitability to same-sex marriage. The facts strongly go against that idea.”
Some in the gay and lesbian community are also finding it difficult to forget that Mehlman was the architect of much of the anti-gay rhetoric and policies of Bush’s presidency.
Blogger Joe Jervis has been unforgiving in the wake of Mehlman’s coming out, noting that public records show the Republican continues to donate funds to politicians who are opposed to same-sex marriage.
Those Republican politicians include Ben Quayle, son of former vice-president Dan Quayle, who’s running for U.S. Congress in Arizona, and Missouri’s Roy Blunt, who has voted to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ban gay marriage.
“If you live in any of the 21 states (where civil unions and same-sex marriage are illegal) … you can credit your second-class citizenship to fellow homosexual Ken Mehlman,” Jervis wrote on his blog Joe.My.God.
Mehlman, for his part, has told The Advocate that he understands the enduring resentment.
“I have a lot of friends who ask questions and who are angry about it. I understand that folks are angry, I don’t know that you can change the past,” he said.
“One thing I regret a lot is the fact that I wasn’t in the position I am today where I was comfortable with this part of my life … I can’t change that. It is something I wish I could and I can only try to be helpful in the future.”
Mehlman has significant work ahead of him to convince many in the gay and lesbian community that he’s truly contrite after years spent working for a political party that has historically fought against same-sex marriage, Wilson said.
“He’s started down that road, and of course time will tell how much heavy lifting he does,” he said.
“He sure has a lot of damage to clean up.”