When the Trevor Project honors Cindy McCain tonight with its Trevor Hero Award, the knee-jerk reaction from those who haven't paid attention will be something like: "Wait, what?"
Her husband is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is at this moment fulfilling a pledge to "do everything in my power" to ensure that immigration reform excludes protection for same-sex binational couples who face being forcibly split up by borders. That's what can sometimes happen when the federal government doesn't recognize your marriage.
Just a few years ago, Senator McCain was perhaps the most vociferous opponent of repealing "don't' ask, don't tell," even leading the filibuster to stop the effort. He argued that if gay and lesbian soldiers served openly, it would hurt unit cohesion and was bad timing because of the wars. The former GOP presidential nominee is a leading voice for a party with a platform that attacks marriage equality as destroying society.
"I am not my husband, and he’s not me," said a resolute Cindy McCain during our phone conversation.
On that point, she couldn't have been clearer. Mrs. McCain told me she believes marriage equality is absolutely inevitable. No matter what the Supreme Court says, public opinion will change throughout the United States. Polls show young people differ from her generation. And they can "open your eyes."
That's how it happened for her.
When The Trevor Project first announced Mrs. McCain as the recipient of its Hero Award in a news release, she credited her daughters for inspiring advocacy on behalf of LGBT equality. Meghan McCain's latest move is an ad campaign for Freedom to Marry.
"I think right now you are seeing so many people, Republicans and Democrats, coming out for marriage equality," says Meghan McCain in the video released Thursday, "and I think just in statistics alone it's obvious that the tide is turning."
When Mrs. McCain receives the Hero Award tonight, it makes sense that the presenter is slated as Meghan McCain. In 2010, Mrs. McCain followed her daughter in posing for a No H8 portrait. That's the campaign of everyday folks and celebs who reacted in protest over Proposition 8's passage in California.
Most probably missed it, but Mrs. McCain was also cast in a Phoenix production of 8, the anti-Prop. 8 play written by Dustin Lance Black and performed by celebs all over the country. Before bowing out due to illness, Mrs. McCain was cast as one of the lesbian plaintiffs who challenges the law's constitutionality. That case is now before the Supreme Court.
What's perhaps most striking about talking with Cindy McCain is her certainty that more Republican women like her are out there, silently wanting to support marriage equality. For some reason, or probably a multitude, these women are hesitating.
Another prominent Republican woman, Laura Bush, has said she supports marriage equality. Unfortunately, when the former first lady's public comments were included (without her permission) in a Respect for Marriage campaign in spots on television and in a full-page ad in The New York Times, she politely asked to be removed. It's not her fight. But Cindy McCain has taken a different approach.
I'd like to think she's right about Republican women. She says they may agree with her that equality for LGBT people is "a human rights issue." And I'd like to think that her principled example to those women is making a difference.
Political strategists talk a lot about "the movable middle." These voters probably grew up being taught that homosexuality is wrong, but they don't identify with the end-of-world rhetoric from the likes of Rick Santorum.
We may all want to corner Meghan McCain and get her to repeat — word for word — whatever it is she said that led her mother to break with the influence of her generation, her party, and her husband. But I doubt you'll discover a magic phrase or moment.
Instead, it's exactly how Cindy McCain describes it. When she says her children opened her eyes, she actually spends a lot of time talking about her other daughter, Bridget, who is adopted. Bridget is from Bangladesh and was born with a cleft palate. Cindy McCain has one word — "dumb" — to describe the reaction Bridget's appearance engendered in public.
Along the way in fighting snap judgments and fears, the experience opened her heart to something, perhaps a form of compassion, that made her more receptive when daughter Meghan would one day challenge her on equal rights for gays and lesbians.
Too often those who discriminate against LGBT people see us as "other." Cindy McCain remembers with dismay how children would want to poke Bridget's face. So many people change their mind only after getting to know someone who is LGBT. Then we're not so scary.
Cindy McCain is not her husband. They are different people, with different opinions. But I think the more important part of Cindy McCain's message is that we're all the same, we're all human.
LUCAS GRINDLEY is editorial director for Here Media. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and two foster children. Cindy McCain will be presented with the award tonight by her daughter Meghan during TrevorLIVE New York at Chelsea Piers.