Unlocking the Conservative Closet
BY Kerry Eleveld
October 12 2010 4:00 AM ET
“I think you’re able to become more self-aware when you step back from the process, when you’re not working day-to-day for an elected official or for a party committee,” says Gurley, who worked at the RNC during the 2004 election. “All of us who get involved in politics—a lot of what drives us is a passion or belief in some cause, and to a degree, we all drink the Kool-Aid in order to do it.”
Gurley’s first personal dilemma happened just a few weeks into his tenure at the RNC, when President Bush threw his support behind the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment, a constitutional ban on marriage equality, in 2004. Gurley, who was out to most of his friends and family but not to all of his GOP colleagues, was traveling when the news broke. He had just placed an order for a life-size photograph of the president to hang in his office. “When I returned from the trip, it was just sitting there,” he recalls. “I walked in and saw that picture and felt like I had been gut-punched. I literally put it behind my desk and didn’t put it up for months.”
Gurley remembers going through “a great deal of introspection” at the time. “The way I rationalized it was, I looked at it as being nothing more than campaign rhetoric,” says Gurley, who no longer works in politics and today sits on the board of Equality North Carolina.
Bush’s imprimatur on the GOP’s war against marriage equality presaged a rocky year for Gurley. He says he never sat in any of the campaign sessions where aides strategized about the 11 state constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage that election year (all of which passed), but he “winced” every time the subject of gay marriage came up. And although his name made a surprise appearance on Mike Rogers’s website BlogActive.com, which outs closeted Republicans who work against gay rights issues, Gurley says he was working internally with other Republicans—gay and straight—to try to “blunt the impact” of the federal amendment moving forward. “Some of us at the time felt like we were doing what we thought we could do within the boundaries of whom we worked for and where we worked to try to bridge this gap between the party and the LGBT community,” he says.
But in retrospect, Gurley acknowledges that he could have made more of a difference he’d been out to his RNC colleagues. “It might have given a heightened sense of awareness to others if everyone had known, rather than some knowing and others not knowing,” he says.
Similarly, Ken Mehlman says being in the closet hampered his ability to argue against antigay tactics employed on the 2004 campaign trail. “I did have regrets,” Mehlman says, “not only because I hadn’t come to terms with my sexuality myself—when I was asked about it my answers were indirect and evasive—but also because of the fact that I didn’t speak out when these issues were being discussed and that I was silent about things like the Federal Marriage Amendment.” He hesitates to rationalize his lack of action but adds, “I do think the two are related.”
Mehlman says the politics of the 2004 election and the evolving discussion of marriage equality helped nudge him into realizing that he had to make peace with his sexuality after finding it “unbelievably difficult” to engage with his peers on the matter. About two years ago he finally resolved to start coming out slowly, a process that started with friends and family and culminated with an interview with The Atlantic in August.
Mehlman’s revelation received mixed reviews from gay activists, given how LGBT people have been demonized by the far right. Though he often emphasizes that he’s a private citizen now, not a political operative, part of his rationale for coming out publicly was that he wants to help advance the LGBT movement.
After talking with Ted Olson regarding the legal challenge to Proposition 8, Mehlman decided to host a fund-raiser for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the organization financing the effort. The event paired liberal luminaries such as John Podesta of the Center for American Progress and former congressman Dick Gephardt with conservative power brokers, including former George W. Bush lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg and former McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt. The fund-raiser was scheduled to take place September 22, just as The Advocate was going to press, and Mehlman said it had already attracted about $750,000 in donations.
“I do want to figure out ways I can be helpful to the cause of equal rights,” Mehlman says, “and I knew that in doing that event it would be important to come out.”