Unlocking the Conservative Closet

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com 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. The stress of campaigns, legislative battles, and presidential politicking can take a toll on advancing equality. Dan Gurley, former national field director and deputy political director for the RNC, says anyone can easily overlook the effect of tactical decisions in the proverbial heat of the moment.

“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.” For Sarah Longwell, being privy to antigay strategizing sped up her coming-out process. Though the then–25-year-old had confided to her friends and family about her sexual orientation in 2005, her publishing company colleagues weren’t aware of it when, that same year, she took on the task of promoting a book by a right-wing senator from Pennsylvania who had his eyes on the presidency.

It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good was Sen. Rick Santorum’s answer to Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book, It Takes a Village. As Longwell sat in a planning meeting one day and discovered that Santorum had dedicated a section of the book to skewering marriage equality, her heart sank. “At that moment it clicked that I was going to be part of a team working very hard to promote a book in which a strong argument would be made against gay marriage,” Longwell says. She admits that when she was working on the book, she wasn’t thinking much about activism and equality. “But I certainly believed in gay marriage and was hopeful that one day I would be able to get married.”

Longwell had always been drawn to conservative principles and hadn’t necessarily considered them to be incompatible with marriage equality prior to the 2004 election. In the vein of Ronald Reagan, she says, “I saw the Republican Party as a big tent at the time. I thought it was about limited government, teaching people to be self-sufficient, the government not playing a role in your personal life.”

She quickly realized that 20 years after Reagan’s presidency, those primary Republican political ideals were being personified in politicians like Santorum. Worse yet, Longwell says she found the senator’s argument for the benefit of two people making a lifelong commitment to each other tremendously convincing. “He always made such a compelling case for the role of family in society and for the way the institution of marriage enhanced an individual’s life, kept him or her from being dependent on the state, which is a good conservative argument,” she says. “And I always wanted to ask the question, ‘Where did that leave me?’ ”

Longwell never did come out to Santorum, nor did she ask him to square his position. Instead, she quit her job shortly after a publicity event for the book that drew a small group of protesters. As a lesbian couple stood with their young daughter, who held a sign reading “My Two Moms Take Me Bowling,” Longwell felt a simultaneous sense of pride in them and disgust with her own betrayal.

“I made a promise to myself that, from here on out, I will be out and I will always defend my fundamental belief that gay people should be allowed to get married,” says Longwell, who now works for a conservative lobbying and consulting firm in Washington. “Politics is all about compromise and what you can live with, and I realized that I couldn’t compromise on my identity.”

As she continues to watch pro-gay conservatives like Mehlman, Olson, and Steve Schmidt—McCain’s senior campaign manager in 2008, who went on to make an airtight case for marriage equality at last year’s Log Cabin Republicans convention—Longwell hopes her younger counterparts will reach the same conclusion she did, only earlier. “I think that it’s so much easier to scapegoat gay people if you don’t think they’re in the room when you’re doing it.”