February 27, 2013, 10:00am

by Richard Socarides

The news, on the front page of the Times this morning, that dozens of leading Republicans had signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the case of Proposition 8, the California gay-marriage ban, merited the A1 treatment that it received. Despite their party and their own past positions, Jon Huntsman, Meg Whitman, Ken Duberstein, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and others said that they supported a Constitutional right to same-sex marriage. This comes two days before the Obama Administration must decide whether it is ready to file a similar brief. In the most high-profile Supreme Court case of the year, with the future of how we view civil rights and treat our fellow-citizens at stake, someone had quietly engineered enough prominent conservatives from the opposition party to sign onto a legal brief supporting full equality for gay and lesbian Americans. That someone was Ken Mehlman, the openly gay former political director of the George W. Bush White House, the campaign manager for Bush’s 2004 reëlection campaign, and the former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

When Ken Mehlman came out of the closet, in August, 2010, announcing his sexual orientation to Marc Ambinder, in an Atlantic article, not everyone was completely surprised. But it did represent something of a turning point. For the first time, the gay and lesbian political community had a real conservative leader among its ranks, and you knew—if you knew anything about Ken Mehlman—that things would be different from then on.

It’s not just that Ken Mehlman is a prominent Republican, which makes him an important asset to—and, now, organizer in—the gay-rights movement; it’s that he is one of the smartest political operatives anywhere in the country right now, and that he understands better than perhaps anyone how moderate and persuadable Republicans think. These are the very people the gay-rights movement is now trying to speak to. As Mehlman told the Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “We are trying to say to the Court that we are judicial and political conservatives, and it is consistent with our values and philosophy for you to overturn Proposition 8.”

The summer of his coming out, I asked Mehlman what he planned to do now that his sexual orientation was public. He told me that while he wanted to be an advocate and work for change and greater acceptance, he thought that he should first spend some time listening and learning. And, for a while, Mehlman kept a fairly low profile. They were many calls for him to apologize directly to the gay community for past misdeeds, some real and others imagined. When he came out he had said, “I can’t change the fact that I wasn’t in this place personally when I was in politics, and I genuinely regret that. It was very hard, personally.” (As an out democratic staffer to President Bill Clinton when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act, I understand some of what this might have been like for him.) Later, in May of 2012, after he had done substantial behind-the-scenes work to advance the cause of gay equality, he expanded on that: “At a personal level, I wish I had spoken out against the [anti-gay] effort… As I’ve been involved in the fight for marriage equality, one of the things I’ve learned is how many people were harmed by the campaigns in which I was involved. I apologize to them and tell them I am sorry. While there have been recent victories, this could still be a long struggle in which there will be setbacks, and I’ll do my part to be helpful.”

Mehlman, now an investment banker by day, is on the board of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group that has organized the challenge to Proposition 8, and which hired the superlawyers Ted Olson and David Boies to spearhead it. He has worked with the other most prominent national organization fighting for gay marriage, the New York-based Freedom to Marry, and has offered his help to pretty much in the effort anyone who wants it. (I have worked with the same organizations.) He was active in the past election on the side of advocates who won in all four states where marriage equality was on the ballot: Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington State. Perhaps he will never be able to fully undo the 2004 effort by Republicans to put anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendments through in order to bring out the conservative base vote. But it will not be for lack of trying.

How was Ken Mehlman able to go to all of these people who signed this brief for gay equality and ask them for help? It was because he had worked with and known many of them for decades, and because now they finally knew him. It is often said that the most important political act any gay person can take is to come out of the closet. Telling your family, friends, neighbors, and business associates who you really are makes people aware that anti-gay discrimination is discrimination against someone they know, like, and respect. It’s not easy to come out of the closet at any age. It’s certainly not easy if you’re a teen-ager living in an intolerant community. But it also must have taken courage to come out of the closet as a middle-aged Republican who had been so prominent on the conservative side of the political debate. There were no former Republican Presidents who signed on to the brief, nor any former Republican attorneys general, but one gets the feeling that it won’t be long now.

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