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Some thoughts on Ken Mehlman

JoeMyGod provoked a storm of responses with a very simple post this morning.

Let's talk about forgiveness.

Given the context it was clearly a reference to Ken Mehlman's coming out.  Comments ranged from “string him up” to a fabulous historical reference to Henry IV begging the pope's forgiveness at Canossa.

Can the gay community forgive Ken Mehlman?  Should we? Under what circumstances could we consider some kind of absolution for the profound damage he and his colleagues did to tens of thousands of glbt people?

I think there is a difference between forgiving someone who has done direct harm to you personally as opposed to someone who orchestrates organized institutional harm to a large group of people.

For instance , I was sexually abused as a kid.  For years I had obsessive thoughts of revenge that screwed up my life pretty badly.  Once the abuse ended I never had any contact with my abuser or got an apology.  But eventually I reached a point where I was able to forgive and let go of those feelings — not for the abuser's sake but for my own well-being and to end his influence in my life. Finding a way to forgive changed my life for the better.

Mehlman represents something else entirely.  He was the willing leader of a carefully orchestrated campaign to demonize gay and lesbian people for political and personal gain.  As a result tens of thousands of GLBT people suffered.  Suffering for which Mehlman shares personal responsibility.

When Kerry Eleveld confronted Mehlman about this in her Advocate interview, asking about his role in the 2004 Bush campaign and its extremely homophobic tactics, he responded.

I obviously found it particularly challenging to deal with and, because I wasn't in the place I am today where I'm comfortable with this part of my life, it was really hard and it was particularly hard because there was really nobody who knew this about me and so there was no one I could even talk to about it. So it was a period that I'm very glad is over. 

That's the point of so much of the rage that is falling around Mehlman.  The period he helped create, that he implemented, that he led is not over.

Tens of thousands of glbt people continue to live every day with the consequences of the anti-marriage amendments, the lack of employment protections, the widespread bigotry and anti-gay hatred fostered by the Bush Campaign and RNC are with us today.

The fact that Mehlman and many of the Republican operatives who consciously pursued anti-gay strategies are not personally homophobic does not excuse them.  If anything they are more culpable because their actions can only be seen as a cynically calculated decision to raise money and secure votes.  They do not even have the defense of truly believing in what they did.

So is there a path to forgiveness or redemption for someone like Ken Mehlman?

The tenets of restorative justice provide some direction.  Rather than meting out punishment, restorative justice aims to address the following questions:

1. Who has been hurt?

2. What are their needs?

3. Whose obligations are these?”

Clearly, tens of thousands, if not millions, of glbt people were directly and materially harmed by the policies and strategies supported and implemented by Mehlman as manager of the Bush Campaign and head of the RNC.  They lost jobs, were unable to secure legal protections for their intimate relationships, suffered financial losses through lack of access to tax benefits, insurance and social security. We experienced and continue to experience the additional stresses of living in a society where bigotry and discrimination against glbt peple is a daily risk.

What do we need?  Protection in employment and public accomodations, legal recognition of our relationships and access to the same supports and benefits as married heterosexual couple, and enforcement of hate crimes laws and passage of anti-bullying legislation to protect glbt children from violence in schools.

What can Ken Mehlman do if he truly wants to make amends and find a place in the gay community?  Mike Rogers has a few choice suggestions.

Mehlman has taken a good first step by opening his Rolodex to raise money in support of marriage equality.  But it is only a baby step.  

As one of the chief architects and implementers of the GOPs anti-gay strategy, Mehlman needs to publicly and sincerely reject the policies he helped put in place.  He must risk his standing with the Republican Party with a call that it reject the homophobic bigotry that motivates a powerful constituency of the party.  He must continue raising money and awareness for marriage equality, particularly repeal of DOMA and state constitutional amendments that limit marriage to a man and a woman.

Mehlman made his fortune callously using the gay community as a target to win votes, influence and money.  So when the book comes out (y'all know it's only a matter of time) he can donate most or all of the profits to the gay organization of his choosing.  On the book tour, when he is on chatting with Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, he needs to articulate the conservative case for gay marriage.

Finally, he can put his skills as a brilliant political strategist to work for marriage equality and other gay causes that fit with his personal conservative values.

If Ken Mehlman does these things, then the gay community could seriously consider welcoming into the fold.

But honestly, I don't think that Mehlman can be trusted or expected to do  any of this. The point is Mehlman is a brilliant political strategist.  Not to mention calculating and cynical.  His coming out isn't really news.  It's been common knowledge inside the Beltway for years.  His protestations about only recently coming to terms with his homosexuality is a patent lie, based on multiple reports of bringing his date to White House functions and RNC events.

So what's really going on here? 

It's actually good news for the gay community.  I think Mehlman's public acknowledgement is a calculated move by the Republican Party to end its use of homophobia as a political tactic.

Let's face it, public opinion is beginning to shift with incredible speed in support of employment protections, repeal of Don't Ask/Don't Tell, and marriage equality.  Over the next few days, look at the non-religious leaders of the Republican Party who issue statements of support for Ken.  Homophobia is losing its utility as a vote-getter and fundraising tool.  Islamophobia will take its place — Mehlman's asinine statement in his Atlantic coming out interview is simple positioning for the replacement bigotry.

He often wondered why gay voters never formed common cause with Republican opponents of Islamic jihad, which he called “the greatest anti-gay force in the world right now.”

Do I have any proof of this?  No.  But I do believe the Republican Party wants to position itself to hold onto the votes and money of the 30% of glbt people who supported John McCain for president.  

Mehlman's disingenous coming out interview fits with his history of cynical manipulation and willingness to do whatever it takes to serve the interests of the Republican Party.  It's provided him great wealth, access and comfort — something he is not about to give up.   

So while Mehlman's coming out is not a step forward for the gay community, it is a positive sign that our time as a whipping boy for conservative causes is coming to an end.

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