In another context, Gloria Steinem had the perfect comeback. Told that she didn't look her age, the glamorous feminist said, "This is what 50 looks like."
Well, this is what gay looks like: Ken Mehlman.
The former Republican national chairman, who grew up in Pikesville, publically came out last week and instantly set the punditry class abuzz. Not so much over the idea that a single, 43-year-old man who recently moved to New York's Chelsea neighborhood turned out to be gay — welcome to the cabaret, ol' chum! — but for his role in a party that has exploited same-sex marriage as a wedge issue.
In fact, Mehlman came out specifically to help the cause that so many in his party have tried to defeat: He has been working with the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group fighting California's Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage. Questions about his sexuality arose — as they had during his years in the Bush White House and at the helm of the Republican National Committee — and he decided to finally answer them truthfully.
Good for him. I can't join the chorus that has emerged in some parts condemning him for his role in a White House and a party that tried to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage. Yes, he does have some 'splaining to do — even though the Federal Marriage Amendment ultimately failed, some states went on to change their constitutions. And he was also George W. Bush's political director under Karl Rove, who worked to get anti-gay measures on ballots as a way of bringing conservatives to the polls and thus help GOP candidates.
But it's complicated, this zone where your private life intersects with your public one. I don't think Mehlman is a Larry Craig, who voted against protections for gays and yet was caught soliciting an undercover cop in an airport men's room. Maybe Mehlman should have pushed back against Rove's efforts at divisiveness over gays. Maybe he should have quit.
But I think it's an awfully heavy burden to put on someone, without knowing all that went on behind the scenes. And, in the end, I think sometimes we place all the responsibility for civil rights on those who would benefit from them: It's not just gays — or blacks or the disabled — who should shoulder the weight of fighting for their rights; the straights and the whites and the non-disabled should be on the front lines as well.
Here's the thing: When you're a minority, that's not the only thing you are. Mehlman, for example, is gay, but he is also Republican and conservative and Jewish and a guy whose hair is thinning and all sorts of other things. Sometimes, one thing you are conflicts with another, and you somehow you have to find a way to deal with it. And sometimes that takes time.
As Mehlman explained to The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, through whom he publically announced his orientation on Wednesday, fully becoming who he is was a long journey: "I can't change the fact that I wasn't in this place personally when I was in politics, and I genuinely regret that."
Now an executive with a private equity firm, Mehlman has chosen to work for gay marriage. He is organizing a fundraiser for the foundation leading the legal fight against Prop. 8. Interestingly enough, he's not the only Bush administration official in the battle. Former Solicitor General Ted Olson was one of the lead attorneys for the same-sex marriage advocates in the recent successful court battle that led a federal judge to overturn the ban.
It's not that Mehlman's coming out, by itself, will suddenly flip anyone's stance overnight. Surely, the reaction in state and local GOP clubs is hardly a chorus of "Oh my goodness, Mabel, that nice Ken Mehlman who used to sign the fundraising letters is gay! We must immediately support his right to marry!"
But by the same token, his announcement will become part of a cumulative chipping away at the idea in some quarters that gays are just Not Our Kind, Dear.
Human nature being what it is, people who oppose same-sex marriage need to know that their next-door neighbor, say, or their co-worker or the former national chairman of the GOP is the person they would deny a right that they themselves enjoy.
It's simply harder to demonize a group if you actually know members of it. They are no longer the other, but simply another Tom, Dick or Harry. Or even the creationists' nightmare couple, Adam and Steve.
Or Ken Mehlman.
He's not giving any more interviews for now, so I called his dad, Arthur, the retired accountant who Mehlman has said helped shape his early conservative leanings.
He had this to say: "We couldn't be prouder of Ken. I really don't think it's appropriate for us to talk about his private life. I'm happy to say he's happy, and we're happy, and we couldn't be prouder."
Not much else to say, is there?