On Mehlman, I’m more interested in equality than revenge

I get that people are angry. And they should be. But I don’t think the anger negates the other side of the coin, that Ken Mehlman coming out as a gay man is good for our community.

I started AMERICAblog six years ago. But I started in gay politics 17 years ago, when I volunteered with Senator Kennedy’s office on the original gays in the military debate. I was angry back then, in the early 90s. Angry that a country I was always told, always believed, was the freest place on earth had relegated me to second class citizenship. But more importantly, stronger than my anger was my desire for full equality. I didn’t get involved in gay politics out of a desire to get even. I got involved in gay politics because I want my equal rights.

And that takes us to Ken Mehlman. A lot of people in the community have reacted to Mehlman’s coming out with scorn and derision, and rightfully so. I get that people are livid about finding out that a gay man was overseeing the Republican party at a time when the party was (and still is) supremely homophobic – a time when they were pushing the Federal Marriage Amendment to the United States Constitution, something Mehlman himself once agreed with. Joe dug this little Mehlman nugget up yesterday, for example:

“I think the issue was injected when a liberal court in Massachusetts said they were going to redefine a 200 year old institution in this country by judicial fiat,” said Mehlman, who also endorses a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage — political catnip for the Christian Right.

Pretty disgusting stuff, to say the least.

The following comment a reader left on the post I wrote last night about this issue is typical of the community’s response:

I sincerely hope this article is a massive joke. If so, haha! If not, please read a list of the things this man pushed forward during the Bush-era to seriously harm the gay community and tell me again I should be happy or supportive this man crawled out of the closet.

Mehlman had incredible political power and influence, who could have just as easily led a quiet closeted life in no way harming the LGBT community. But instead he worked with the homophobic religious right, orchestrated successful anti-gay policies and helped bigoted politicians enter into office for his own damn profit.

Oh, boo hoo! Coming out is so hard~!

I get the anger. Trust me, I was pissed at him too, and knew he was gay probably long before he did. That’s why we routinely posted Mehlman’s photo on the blog (Mehlman Mondays, we called it, if anyone recalls), and routinely called him out for being a closet heterosexual (i.e., a supposedly straight man who was afraid to even say he was straight). So I get the anger, and the sense of betrayal that someone gay could oversee an organization that gay-baited our civil rights for their own political profit. Someone mentioned Roy Cohn. And it’s not an unfair comparison, for someone so high level. A large part of the reason I launched AMERICAblog in 2004 was my anger at the Republican party, and George Bush in particular, for their embrace of the Federal Marriage Amendment. And Mehlman was Bush’s campaign director.

So I get it. But maybe I’m just more political than most. So, naturally, when I hear the news of Mehlman’s coming out, I’m trying to think of how this revelation might aid our battle for our civil rights.

It’s a given that Mehlman was involved in horribly anti-gay politics as the head of the Republican party. But now he’s coming out and embracing the cause of marriage equality. And from what I hear privately, from friends who know, he’s for real – he’s helping us out, and in a big way.

So can’t we be pissed at Ken Mehlman for doing really bad things to our community, and at the same time welcome his desire to begin to make amends? Should we refuse his offer to become an ally because of his admittedly atrocious past? If we accept his offer, does it mean that we somehow dishonor the past? And if we turn down his offer, are we not sending the message that we never want anti-gay Republicans to come over to our side?

From my perspective, we should recognize an opportunity when it’s dropped in our lap, regardless of our rightful and righteous anger – or perhaps not regardless, but rather alongside. I simply want my civil rights more than I want revenge. It’s the way good politics works, I think – and it’s the way politics used to work in this country – putting the potential to move forward today ahead of your legitimate anger about yesterday. It’s something the White House, for example, doesn’t understand about us. They think we criticize them – and we do, a lot – because we either hate the President, are the kind of people who will never be happy, or simply because we’re nuts. What they don’t understand is that our anger is not irrational, and it’s not motivated by a desire to exact any kind of retribution against the President. We beat up President Obama because we want him to keep his promises to our community, and we truly believe that the only way those promises are going to be kept, in full, is by keeping the pressure on the President. We don’t beat him up because he’s pissed us off, because it feels good to do so, or out of any sense of revenge. We beat him up because we think it’s a wise tactical move towards achieving our political goals. It’s the same analysis I try to make on any political move I make. Will it serve the larger goal or not?

Ditto with Mehlman. If someone can explain to me how it advances our civil rights to spurn Mehlamn’s offer of help, I’m all ears. Now, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely agree with Joe’s post of last night, reminding people that the media is engaging in some pretty bizarre whitewashing of Mehlman’s actual anti-gay rights record. It serves no purpose to lie about what Mehlman did in the past, and it does a disservice to the memory of those he harmed. But I truly believe, with all my years of successful activism to back me up, that while anger is justified, it’s only a useful political tool when it advances the cause. Anger for the sake of anger isn’t why I’m here, and it’s not why I’m in politics. I’m here to advocate for our full and equal civil rights. And if Ken Mehlman thinks he can help me do that, he’s welcome to try.

I remember, back in the early 90s when I was working with Kennedy’s office on gay rights issues, the shock of seeing Kennedy’s staff working with conservative Republicans who were willing to help on gay issues, regardless of how bad those Republicans were in the past, or even the present, on other issues near and dear to the left. I was there when Kennedy got Barry Goldwater on board to support the repeal of the military’s gay ban. I’m sure some at the time loathed Goldwater, and couldn’t believe that Ted Kennedy was welcoming his support. But Goldwater’s support on the issue, even though we didn’t win in the end, was a blow to the forces of hate. Kennedy welcomed it, and I welcome it. (“It doesn’t matter if you are straight, just if you can shoot straight” anyone?) In retrospect, I challenge anyone to argue that it was wrong, immoral, or politically unhelpful for Ted Kennedy to get Barry Goldwater on board. If you agree with me on this one, tell me how Mehlman was any different than Goldwater, in terms of working for the forces of darkness?

And it didn’t stop with Goldwater. I remember how Kennedy’s staff even worked with Jesse Helms’ office. Yes, you read that right.

It seems that Helms had some staffers who weren’t entirely thrilled with their boss’s anti-gay agenda. At times, those staffers would leak the text of an upcoming Helms anti-gay amendment to Kennedy’s office the night before
a key Senate debate. The only reason Kennedy got the amendment ahead of time – something which was incredibly helpful to our efforts to stop Helms’ hate – was because Kennedy’s staff was smart enough, and politically savvy enough, to reach out to, and form a relationship with, an office that was trying to destroy them, and us. Again, I challenge anyone to explain to me, and the rest of the community, how it was a bad idea to get a copy of Helms’ hate amendments ahead of time. In fact, it was brilliant.

Then there’s Ted Olson. Boy oh boy did I get an earful when I welcomed the legal prince of darkness into our fold by writing that it was a good thing he was representing us in our legal battle against Prop 8. People were rightfully ticked at the guy. But I remember one reader telling me Olson was a fifth columnist, only pretending to be on our side, and some day, in court, he’d turn on us! Didn’t quite work out that way, and today Ted Olson is a hero in the gay community. He may still think himself a conservative Republican, he may still be one, but he’s now done more than most of us to advance the cause of gay equality. And no one reasonable questions the benefit of having Olson on our side.

Sometimes you work with people you don’t like in order to achieve the greater good. Or at least you should. Sometimes they’ve seen the light, sometimes they haven’t. But if your interests coincide, and they’re not going to stab you in the back, why not accept their offer of help? Does it really dishonor the past to acknowledge the harm they’ve caused at the same time you welcome the good they can do?

I firmly believe that it advances our cause more to embrace Ken Mehlman than to shun him. That’s my theory. I challenge you, rather than simply posting ad hominem attacks on me in the comments, to respond to that one simple point. Tell me why embracing Mehlman will not advance our civil rights agenda, and tell me why shunning him will. The man is ridiculously well connected, and a major power in the Republican party, even after leaving the RNC. It’s not like people lose their contacts once they move on to another job. On the contrary, it’s the reason people because such rich and powerful lobbyists after working in government – precisely because they retain much of the contacts and influence they had before.

Ken Mehlman now wants to use his contacts and influence to help me win the right to marry. I don’t care if he ripped the heads off baby bunnies back in 2004, if he’s willing to help us now. My enemy’s enemy is my friend. And if Ken Mehlman wants to be my friend, and start on the path towards making up for all the bad things he did in the past, I’m not going to spurn his help, and set our movement and community back by missing this incredible opportunity, simply because the guy (rightfully) pisses me off. How do you think the religious right is reacting to the news that Mehlman isn’t just gay, but he’s actually helping us in our battle for full marriage equality – helping us challenge Prop 8? I’m guessing that they’re not calling us suckers for accepting his help. They’re most assuredly livid at, and scared to death of, the impact he’s going to have on behalf of our rights.

The best revenge is living well, they say. It’s also living free. If Ken Mehlman wants to help me become a full and equal citizen of these United States, he’s welcome to try.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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