For quite a while now, the GOP has lived with a rather spectacular contradiction over homosexuality. It was perhaps best summed up by the split between George W Bush and Dick Cheney in 2004 over the federal marriage amendment. Bush backed the amendment – you can read my real-time response that day here – and Cheney didn’t. So on a major issue of social policy – one on which the 2004 election was waged in Ohio – the ticket was split. Well: not so split. Bush – we were led to believe – was not exactly energized on this subject. His wife and daughters all backed marriage equality. In his personal life, Bush wasn’t a hater or a man lacking in empathy. Far from it. But Rove knew the base, and knew what could deliver it. So, with the aid of his then-closeted campaign honcho, Ken Mehlman, Rove won Ohio. With Ohio, he won Bush’s re-election.
Ask yourself: on what ticket in living memory did a president and vice-president publicly disagree on an issue that was critical to winning the election? And there you see the clash. Republican elites had gay friends, offspring and key aides. Yet the Republican base continued to view gays as some kind of threat to the family. The electoral math won. I remember – those were the days – when I was invited to meet Rove in the White House early in the first Bush term, and pressed the case against the FMA, or any variant thereof. Rove simply told me that there were many more Christianists than homos, and that mathematical reality dwarfed any arguments, however meritorious. It wasn’t the first time I had seen utter cynicism on this issue in high places – it was hard to beat the Clintons for that. But the baldness of the cynicism – the reflexive refusal even to address the actual rights and wrongs of the matter – was never better expressed than by Rove.
Cheney got a pass – but he shouldn’t have. He boldly came out for marriage equality explicitly … in 2009. In the vice-presidential debate of 2004, he bristled – as did the public – at being confronted by the fact that he was hurting his own family on this issue. But at some point, the contradictions – and their deep moral consequences – had to emerge. And now they have in full bloom. Liz Cheney, not a homophobe in my personal memory, is nonetheless opposing her sister’s right to marry – anywhere. Actually, she is in favor of her sister and her wife being stripped of all legal protections the moment they come into their family’s home state. Let me put this more clearly: Liz Cheney is attacking her sister’s dignity and civil equality, in order to advance her political career. In a word, it’s disgusting.
It’s not made any better by Liz Cheney’s response:
I love my sister and her family and have always tried to be compassionate towards them. I believe that is the Christian way to behave.
To which I would like to respond on behalf of Mary and Heather and the rest of us: fuck your compassion. Just give your sister the basic equality and security for her own family that you have for yours.
At some point, even the most cynical of politicians has to understand that this issue is not abstract. It affects your own sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. You cannot publicly attack your own sister’s family and say you love her as well. It does not compute. And Liz Cheney does not even have the excuse of being of a different generation. She’s my generation. She knows better. She has seen her sister’s life up-close. So major props to Heather Poe, Liz’s sister-in-law, for calling her out:
Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 — she didn’t hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us. To have her say she doesn’t support our right to marry is offensive to say the least.
Of course, principled differences of opinion are compatible with family values. Some members of my own extended family don’t agree with marriage equality. I live with that, but I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t sting. But they’re not actively campaigning on the issue and even trying to use it for political gain.
What you’re seeing here is the Republican elite’s hypocrisy finally being called out – in the most public way possible. By refusing to stay silent while their sister and sister-in-law acts as if it’s still 1996, Mary Cheney and Heather Poe are standing up for their own integrity. They are therefore now leaders of the gay rights cause – even though many on the gay left will doubtless give them no credit. Because this cause is not just a public and political one; it is a personal and moral one. And the ability to pretend that you can do one thing in public and another in private is becoming more attenuated by the day.
(Photo: Congressman Dick Cheney and wife Lynne pose for a photo with their two children Liz (L) and Mary and Basset Hound Cyrano at their home in Casper, Wyoming in March 1978. By David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images.)