Unlocking the Conservative Closet
BY Kerry Eleveld
October 12 2010 3:00 AM ET
Tim Miller, a closeted staffer with John McCain’s failed presidential campaign, stood by and watched when the candidate made what Miller considered his first gay rights gaffe in October 2006.
“I think that gay marriage should be allowed, if there’s a ceremony kind of thing, if you want to call it that. I don’t have any problem with that,” McCain said on MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris Matthews before a live audience in Iowa. Miller, who was the senator’s 25-year-old communications director, knew McCain was in trouble. “At that point I remember thinking, I can’t believe he just made that mistake,” he says.
On the set, aides quickly sprang into damage control mode. When Hardball cut to a commercial break, McCain’s chief strategist, John Weaver, whispered into his boss’s ear, and the candidate backpedaled when the show resumed. “I believe if people want to have private ceremonies, it’s fine. I do not believe that gay marriages should be legal,” he said with a clenched jaw, bearing no resemblance to the politician who had loosely ad-libbed his previous answer just minutes earlier. Miller’s shock at McCain’s first statement didn’t change to anger for the second: After all, disagreeing with his boss on same-sex marriage seemed no different to Miller than disagreeing on campaign finance reform, another issue on which they diverged. “I wasn’t really thinking about it that much from my personal perspective. I was interested in getting him elected. Iowa is a conservative place, and in order to win the caucus there, that’s not really a tenable position.”
After moving to Washington, D.C., the following year, Miller began the process of coming out, spurred on perhaps by one of the Republican Party’s most humiliating episodes in recent memory: Idaho senator Larry Craig’s restroom arrest at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where he was accused of soliciting sex from an undercover male police officer. (Craig denies that he is gay.) Watching Craig being interviewed by Matt Lauer, Miller remembers thinking, I will not be like this sad, closeted old man. Instead, Miller, who now works for a Democratic-leaning consulting firm, says he’s found a community of gay men and women working openly and successfully on both sides of the aisle. He says that even former McCain campaign coworkers had “astonishingly positive reactions” to his coming-out. “You don’t have to hide in the closet,” he says. “The closet sucks.”
Miller is one of a growing number of Republicans who hope young conservatives no longer feel the need to hide their sexual identity in order to pursue their passion for politics. Their stories vary wildly: Some came out in protest of what they see as a political ethos that fundamentally rejects their humanity, while others say they aren’t so troubled when their professional obligations seem, to others at least, at odds with their sexual orientation. But most believe the unprecedented support of conservative icons such as George W. Bush’s former solicitor general Ted Olson, currently litigating the federal case against California’s antigay Proposition 8, and the recent openness of high-profile operatives like onetime Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman can help motivate aspiring young gays—and perhaps reshape the national conversation in the process.