A truly tawdry trick

October 21, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Let me see if I have this right. The Republicans are now accusing the Democrats of being insensitive to gay Americans? Or to one gay American, at least?

After John Kerry mentioned Mary Cheney in the third debate, talk-radio hosts finally found a lesbian they wanted to protect. Even the homophobic wing of cable TV rallied to the support of a family with a gay offspring.

Meanwhile, Dick Cheney described himself as "a pretty angry father."

And Lynne Cheney said of the senator: "This is not a good man."

What's wrong with this picture?

Remember way back in the 1980s, when Mr. Cheney racked up one of the most anti-gay voting records in the House of Representatives? In 1988, he was one of 13 members who voted against funding for AIDS testing and research when it was still called a "gay plague." Well, Mr. Cheney's come as far as many other Americans, and for the same essential reason. The more that people in our families, workplaces and communities come out of the closet, the harder it is to regard them as deviants who need to be cured or converted or jailed.

Mary Cheney was by no means outed on national television. She was already out. She lives with a longtime partner, wears a ring and has worked professionally marketing Coors beer to the gay community.

She and partner Heather Poe sat at the convention under the camera lights with the rest of the family. She is not a "child" but the director of vice presidential campaign operations and her father's chief confidante.

Mr. Cheney has talked openly about his "gay daughter," in one of the rare moments that warm his icy persona. He even opposes the constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage that the president supports so ardently.

If Mr. Cheney has an argument with anybody, it's with his running mate, President Bush. But the "pretty angry father" hasn't directed any of that anger at the Republican platform he's running on.

As for Lynne Cheney, who called Mr. Kerry's comments "a cheap and tawdry political trick," what does she call the Republican National Committee mailing that warned evangelicals that if Mr. Kerry is elected, the Bible will be banned and gay marriage will be the law of the land? High-minded?

The vice president, for his part, said that this incident proves Mr. Kerry "will say and do anything in order to get elected." What about the anti-gay-marriage amendments gracing the ballots of 11 states, including swing states such as Ohio? Did he criticize the campaign's use of the gay issue to get evangelicals to the polls? Who will say and do anything to get elected? And two days after the debate there was a rally in Washington dubbed "Mayday for Marriage." The "nonpartisan" crowd full of Bush-Cheney buttons was as anti-gay as it gets. Did I miss it when the candidates distanced themselves from Mayday?

Mary Cheney is an endangered species, a gay Republican in a campaign so hostile that even the Log Cabin Republicans refused to endorse Mr. Bush this year. She is loyal to her father, who is loyal to the president. Is it any wonder that many people in the gay community think she is working for the enemy?

Yes, I am sure that she doesn't want to be seen as the Gay Daughter. Yes, Mr. Kerry could have made his point -- that homosexuality is not a choice -- without her help. And yes, the impulse to give a candidate's families some space and privacy is the right one.

But what Mary Cheney presumably wants in terms of privacy and acceptance is at the heart of the gay community's pursuit of full and equal rights, which her party opposes. It's the people who still regard lesbian as a dirty word who most criticized the senator for using it.

So here we have it. The Republicans are using gay bashing on a culture warpath back to the White House while they spin this story so masterfully that they look like the sensitive protectors of a family with a gay daughter. They have actually won political points suggesting that Mr. Kerry is picking on a gay woman while they, on the other hand, have compassion for the Cheneys.

Hot damn, they're good at this.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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