Mehlman Comes Out of the Closet, Roils Gay Community

Ken Mehlman, then chair of the Republican National Committee, addresses a party gathering in 2006. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

George W. Bush's 2004 campaign chief and former RNC chair Ken Mehlman, long a thorn in the side of the LGBT movement, dropped a bomb yesterday, telling The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder that he's gay. There has been shock and disgust, as Steven Petrow, former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, details in the Huffington Post: "What disturbs me most ... is the rage being unleashed by some members of the LGBT community against him. One blogger called him 'a piece of human garbage.' Another says he is 'so digging [the] rage over this vile POS. Keep it up!' "

But Petrow is coming to terms with the news, and doing his best to be gracious. "I'm no apologist for Ken Mehlman, who headed the Republic National Committee during George W. Bush's presidency and was the architect of much of the anti-gay rhetoric and policies during that time." But he concludes that, "for a community that well knows the power and danger of hate and its connection to violence, how can we condone this kind of 'discourse'? We can't. We don't need to support him. We don't need to forgive him. But we do need to have some empathy and understanding of the closet he has just left. It's a closet every LGBT person knows all too well."

Part of any new dialogue with the LGBT community may have started with Mehlman's interview with Kerry Eleveld in The Advocate that came on the heels of the Atlantic piece. Mehlman told Eleveld that he had been fundraising to help the legal case against California's Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage, but added that "in terms of particular causes, I think it would be premature because I have a lot to learn. I want to talk to folks that are involved in the effort and figure out where I can be constructive."

Mehlman can only hope that the gay community will be forgiving of him. It just might be. Human Rights Campaign spokesman Fred Sainz tells NEWSWEEK that when it comes to the movement for marriage equality, "we need every ally" and that "while the past cannot be overlooked, with more and more people like Ken joining our movement, our future is far more important and holds great promise.

Kevin Nix, a spokesman for the Family Equality Council, a Boston-based advocacy group for LGBT families, says, "The community has a right to be angry with Mehlman—really angry. But being angry now is not going to get us policy reform we are seeking. Mehlman should put the same amount of time, energy, and money he spent working against LGBT equality into working for it. And then some."

Karen Ocamb, news editor for the LGBT publication Frontiers In LA, tells NEWSWEEK, "While I understand the reaction, given Mehlman's hypocritical antigay history, it's also important to note that his coming out is part of a larger and deeper sea-change happening within the Republican Party, with one of the heroes of the straight conservative movement, former Solicitor General Ted Olson serving as the best example of this quieter revolution."