Bush's GOP chairman comes out of the closet. Can he change the gay marriage debate?

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Aug. 26 2010 8:08 AM

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Bush's GOP chairman comes out of the closet. Can he change the gay marriage debate?

Ken Mehlman. Click image to expand.
Ken Mehlman

Ken Mehlman is gay. Lots of people thought so, but nobody knew for sure until Mehlman began telling friends and family in recent months. Now it's public: Mehlman has given a full interview to the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

This is a big deal. Mehlman managed President Bush's re-election campaign in 2004 and chaired the Republican National Committee from 2005 to 2007. Many influential Republicans have worked with him and respect him. He makes it harder for them to think of homosexuality as a behavior. They now know somebody who is gay. Or, as Donald Rumsfeld might have put it, they now know that they know somebody who is gay.

That's important, because if you look at polls over the last 30 or 40 years, two factors have been driving public opinion in the direction of gay rights. One is whether you know someone who's openly gay. More and more people do, and those who do are more tolerant of homosexuality. The other factor is whether you think it's involuntary. This belief, too, has increased over time, and tolerance has increased with it. It's pretty hard to imagine that the guy who ran the GOP during its recent campaigns against gay marriage would come out as homosexual unless he felt he had no choice. This is simply who he is.

Look at the early reactions from his colleagues. The party's current chairman, Michael Steele, says, "I am happy for Ken. His announcement, often a very difficult decision which is only compounded when done on the public stage, reaffirms for me why we are friends and why I respect him personally and professionally." Very difficult decision means, among other things, that Mehlman had no choice. And because the friendship remains, Steele now has another gay friend to think about when he hears a pitch to score political points at the expense of gays.

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Ed Gillespie, the RNC chairman who preceded Mehlman, tells Ambinder that "it is significant that a former chairman of the Republican National Committee is openly gay and that he is supportive of gay marriage." Gillespie acknowledges "big generational differences in perception when it comes to gay marriage and gay rights as an agenda, and I think that is true on the Republican side." Discomfort with abortion isn't going away, but discomfort with same-sex marriage is fading. Homosexuality is becoming normalized.

In fact, it's becoming Republicanized. Lately, Mehlman has been advising the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is leading the legal battle for gay marriage in California. The foundation's message is nonjudgmental liberal boilerplate: "dedicated to protecting and advancing equal rights for every American." But Mehlman's personal message goes beyond equality. Ambinder, describing his conversation with Mehlman, reports:

He said that he plans to be an advocate for gay rights within the GOP, that he remains proud to be a Republican, and that his political identity is not defined by any one issue. "What I will try to do is to persuade people, when I have conversations with them, that it is consistent with our party's philosophy, whether it's the principle of individual freedom, or limited government, or encouraging adults who love each other and who want to make a lifelong commitment to each other to get married."

That message isn't just egalitarian or libertarian. It's socially conservative. It embraces marriage as an institution that promotes and solidifies commitment. Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, and other writers have made this point for a long time: If you believe in the cultural virtues of marriage, you should support it for gay couples as well as straight ones.

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    If Mehlman can carry that message into the heart of the GOP—if he can give Republicans a way to be pro-marriage without being antigay—he'll have done a great service not just to his party, but to his community. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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