The Advocate interviews Ken Mehlman; what is the political path forward?

Kerry Eleveld landed an interview with the freshly self-outed former head of the RNC and Bush 2004 campaign Ken Mehlman and she gets down to brass tacks about his personal life in the closet and his professional participation in the fight to socially demonize and legally demean LGBTs. I’ll share a couple of questions; it’s a lengthy interview worth the click.

There’s a lot of gays and lesbians and other people who are still angry about the 2004 election and the fact that that those 11 amendments were on the ballot. Is there anything that you would like to say about that in particular?

Look, I have a lot of friends who ask questions and who are angry about it. I understand that folks are angry, I don’t know that you can change the past. As I’ve said, one thing I regret a lot is the fact that I wasn’t in the position I am today where I was comfortable with this part of my life, where I was able to be an advocate against that [strategy] and able to be someone who argued against it. I can’t change that – it is something I wish I could and I can only try to be helpful in the future.

But I understand the anger and I talk to friends about it – it’s something that I hear from a number of friends.

As the strategy developed, did it ever make you uncomfortable?


There were a lot of people, including people that supported the [Federal Marriage Amendment], for example, that worried about this being divisive.

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.

It’s not clear to me that he realizes the depth of destruction he caused in 2004 that we are now fighting back from.

Kerry also asks Mehlman about his general gay conservative philosophy (the “not a single issue” matter), and the direction of the GOP.

I think like a lot of people, there are a lot issues that are important to me – free enterprise and lower taxes and less regulation, a strong national defense, education reform, immigration reform – these are all things that are important to me. [Marriage equality] is also an issue that’s important to me, but I’m someone that tries to find the totality of the issues and support candidates based on the totality of the issues.

…And from the perspective of, what I care the most about, first, and second of all, someone who’s trying to build support in the party for these issues – or at least discourage opposition – I think that’s a good thing.

That was an unsurprising answer. He — and we — have to reckon with a slice of the LGBT population that may in fact weigh party over equality in their support for candidates in some cases. How do we handle that reality? As we noted yesterday, Mehlman still opened his wallet this year for anti-gay pols. The natural follow up to Kerry’s question is whether he would change his mind in the future and weigh equality issues with more importance when an virulently anti-gay pol comes knocking for dough. Only time will tell.

For another take on this, I point you to Steven Petrow, the past president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, who has a piece up at Huff Po, “In Defense of Ken Mehlman: Former GOP Chair is no Roy Cohn.” An excerpt is below the fold, as well as my thoughts.

It’s hardly ever easy for any of us to take those steps, especially because of the contributions of people like Mehlman to the anti-gay chorus of the previous decade. But Mehlman had to know that his coming out would be front page news and fuel the cable news cycle for what I’m sure will be days. To say that his coming out is harder than most is not true, but it certainly is more public and he is certainly being more vilified than any other gay person who has come out in recent times.

What disturbs me most thought is the rage being unleashed by some members of the LGBT community against him. One blogger called him “a piece of human garbage. Another says he is “so digging [the] rage over this vile POS. Keep it up!” he implores. For a community that well knows the power and danger of hate and it’s connection to violence, how can we condone this kind of “discourse”? We can’t. We don’t need to support him. We don’t need to forgive him. But we do need to have some empathy and understanding of the closet he has just left. It’s a closet every LGBT person knows all too well.

I understand the rage, but I also can find the empathy in this story. My initial reaction was more of amusement at first (his poorly kept secret), then anger at his ability to coast out of the closet on the backs of the work of people he worked to oppress now that the Prop 8 ruling has cleared the way for him. I think had my moment of cynicism of course, speculating that Mehlman had to come out, given the AFER fundraiser, so the timing made this “debut” was just as political as any other act he’s participated in.

But as I’m not prone to holding on to rage for long (ask my wife; I don’t really “rage”, I quickly go into problem solving mode), I finally settled into a more pragmatic position of “what comes next” because I’ve long discussed here about the need for both parties to court the LGBT vote. That’s the reality when you see how spineless and pickpockety the Dems have become, thinking there was no where else for us to go. This is not to say the GOP is now welcoming with open arms, but that time is not far away.

So I understand the rage that is expressed in the wake of the news, but if Mehlman is to atone, we have to ask ourselves what is the marker for him to get a passing grade when you cannot change what has transpired? What will constitute falling short of that? He’s not going to become a progressive, nor should expect that.

We are eventually going to have to agree to disagree with members of our community as individuals when it comes to policy that may or may not intersect with equality issues from different places on the political spectrum. I find it a fascinating area to contemplate as the long view.

The caveat: we’re not there yet. We need full equality now. There is much to be done, and we need to have begin that dialogue about the political gulf now — and continue it even after full equality is reached.


Here are other random thoughts after my last post.

On finding out Mehlman’s and AFER’s position on ENDA: If we are to extend the libertarian conservative line of thinking shown by counsel Ted Olsen regarding marriage, it’s not a given that Mehlman or Olsen would necessarily support ENDA. On the other hand, they could align with the constitutional notion that discrimination is wrong. But asking the question in my mind is necessary.

On holding the media accountable for its role in shielding Mehlman. As the whitewashing of Ken Mehlman’s past professional role in the oppression of LGBTs begins (do they think our memories are that short?), this is relevant. It is as important as the political nightmare Mehlman perpetrated back in the day, because it could have been stopped if the MSM didn’t have the homophobic notion that 1) being gay and hypocritically hurting the LGBT movement is not a story and 2) believing that reporting on someone’s sexual orientation is wrong ONLY if you are LGBT.

It’s assumed in the MSM that one is heterosexual — and that is never off the table when wives and children are routinely brought up in reporting. The result is that one is left with the impression that there is something unseemly about being gay. If exposed, Mehlman would likely not have been able to be the architect of a political war that resulted in 11 state amendments passing in 2004 and fomenting rank bigotry that hurt so many.

And there’s no one I know who believes that Mehlman just came to the realization that he was gay. That whopper was not even worth telling in the PR story that rolled out.
Pam’s House Blend – Front Page

—  John Wright

Target Apologizes for Donation to Anti-Gay PAC MN Forward

Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel has apologized to employees for Target's donation to anti-gay PAC MN Forward, which funds ads for anti-gay gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, the AP reports:

Target_emmer "Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel wrote employees to say the discount retailer was "genuinely sorry" over the way a 0,000 contribution to MN Forward donation played out. Steinhafel said Target would set up a review process for future political donations.
MN Forward is running TV ads supporting Republican Tom Emmer, an outspoken conservative opposed to same-sex marriage and other gay-rights initiatives that have come before Minnesota's Legislature."

Wrote Steinhafel: "While I firmly believe that a business climate conducive to growth is critical to our future, I realize our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry. The diversity of our team is an important aspect of our unique culture and our success as a company, and we did not mean to disappoint you, our team or our valued guests."

The Human Rights Campaign recently took out a full page ad in the Minnesota Star-Tribune calling on Target to "make it right" for their donations to the anti-gay PAC.

Towleroad News #gay

—  John Wright

Watch: Matt Morris Calls on Fans to Urge Best Buy to Stop Donating to Anti-Gay PAC ‘MN Forward’


After learning about Best Buy and Target's contributions to anti-gay PAC MN Forward, singer/songwriter Matt Morris amended a YouTube video he posted over the weekend in which he expressed excitement that Best Buy was promoting copies of his latest CD on TVs throughout the store.

In the new video, Morris urges fans to print out a copy of the open letter from HRC urging Best Buy and Target to "make it right" with regard to the MN Forward donations, and take the letter to their local Best Buy.


Towleroad News #gay

—  John Wright

Partner denied sick leave by AT&T

Bryan Dickenson, left, and Bill Sugg hold hands in Sugg’s room at a rehabilitation facility in Richardson on Wednesday, Jan. 27. (Source:John Wright/Dallas Voice)

Despite 100% rating from HRC, company won’t allow gay man time off to care for ailing spouse

JOHN WRIGHT  |  News Editor

Bryan Dickenson and Bill Sugg have been together for 30 years.

For the last 12 of those years, Dickenson has worked as a communications technician for Dallas-based AT&T.

After Sugg suffered a debilitating stroke in September, Dickinson requested time off under the federal Family Medical Leave Act to care for his partner.

But AT&T is refusing to grant Dickenson the 12 weeks of leave that would be afforded to a heterosexual spouse under the act.

As a result, Dickenson is using vacation time so he can spend one afternoon a week at Sugg’s bedside at a rehabilitation facility in Richardson. But Dickenson fears that when his vacation runs out, he’ll end up being fired for requesting additional time off to care for Sugg. Dickenson’s attorney, Rob Wiley of Dallas, said he initially thought AT&T’s refusal to grant his client leave under FMLA was just a mistake on the part of the company. Wiley said he expected AT&T to quickly rectify the situation after he sent the company a friendly letter.

After all, AT&T maintains the highest score of 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which ranks companies according to their treatment of LGBT employees. And just this week, HRC listed AT&T as one of its “Best Places to Work.”

But AT&T has stood its ground, confirming in a statement to Dallas Voice this week that the company isn’t granting Dickenson leave under FMLA because neither federal nor state law recognizes Sugg as his domestic partner.

“I really couldn’t be more disappointed with AT&T’s response,” Wiley said. “When you scratch the surface, they clearly don’t value diversity. I just think it’s an outright lie for AT&T to claim they’re a good place for gays and lesbians to work.”

Wiley added that he’s disappointed in HRC for giving AT&T its highest score. Eric Bloem, deputy director of HRC’s workplace project, said Thursday, Jan. 28 that he was looking into the matter. Bloem said a survey for the Corporate Equality Index asks companies whether they grant FMLA leave to same-sex couples, and AT&T replied affirmatively.

“I’m not exactly sure what’s going on, so I don’t really want to make an official comment on it,” Bloem said.

Walt Sharp, a spokesman for AT&T, said the company has “a long history of inclusiveness in the workplace.”

“There are circumstances under which our administration of our benefits plans must conform with state law, and this is one of those circumstances,” Sharp said in a written statement. “In this case, neither federal nor state law recognizes Mr. Dickenson’s domestic partner with legal status as a qualifying family member for a federal benefit program. There is no basis for this lawsuit or the allegations contained in it and we will seek its dismissal.”

Sharp didn’t respond to a request for further comment.

Wiley said Sharp’s statement doesn’t make sense. No law prohibits the company from granting Dickenson an unpaid leave of absence, which is what he’s requesting. Wiley also noted that no lawsuit has been filed, because there isn’t grounds for one.

The federal FMLA applies only to heterosexual married couples, Wiley said. Some states have enacted their own versions of the FMLA, requiring companies to grant leave to gay and lesbian couples, but Texas isn’t one of them.

Wiley said the couple’s only hope is to somehow convince the company to do the right thing, which is why he contacted the media.

“At some point in time this just becomes really hateful that they wouldn’t have any compassion,” Wiley said of the company. “I think the recourse is to tell their story and let people know how AT&T really treats their employees.”

Through thick and thin

This isn’t the first time Dickenson and Sugg have endured a medical crisis.

Sugg, who’s 69 and suffers from congenital heart problems, nearly died from cardiac arrest shortly after the couple met in 1980.

At the time, Dickenson was a full-time student and didn’t have car. So he rode his bicycle from Garland to Parkland Hospital in Dallas every day to visit Sugg in the intensive care unit.

In an interview this week at the rehab facility, Sugg’s eyes welled up with tears as he recalled what a Parkland nurse said at the time – “If that isn’t love, then I don’t know what the hell love is.”

“And sure enough, it was,” Sugg said over the whirr of his oxygen machine, turning to Dickenson. “As long as I have you, I can get through anything.”

Dickenson said in addition to visiting Sugg each Wednesday afternoon, he wakes up at 7:30 on Saturday and Sunday mornings so he can spend the day with Sugg at the rehab facility.

This past Christmas, Dickenson spent the night on the floor of Sugg’s room.
“That would have been our first Christmas separated, and I just couldn’t bear that, him being alone on Christmas,” Dickenson said.

The worst part of the whole ordeal was when he had to return to work after taking 13 days off following Sugg’s stroke, Dickenson said. Sugg didn’t understand and thought his partner had abandoned him for good.

“He called me over and over every night, begging me to please come see him,” Dickenson said. “And I said, ’Honey, you don’t understand, I had to go back to work to save my job.’

“That’s what really hurts about what they’ve put me through, not my pain and anguish, but his,” Dickenson said.

Dickenson said it was 3 a.m. on Sept. 22 when he rushed Sugg to the hospital. Doctors initially said it was “the worst sinus infection they’d ever seen,” but within 48 hours Sugg had suffered a stroke affecting his cerebellum.

Sugg lost the ability to swallow and his sense of balance. He’s still unable to walk and suffers from double vision.

Because he wasn’t out as gay at work, Dickenson initially told supervisors that his father was sick.

When he returned to work after 13 days at the hospital, Dickenson explained that his domestic partner was ill and he needed more time off. His supervisor managed to get him an additional 30 days of unpaid leave.

In the meantime, Dickenson phoned the company’s human resources department and asked whether he’d be eligible for leave under FMLA, which allows 12 weeks (or about 90 days) per year. Dickenson said he was told that since he lives in Texas, he wouldn’t be eligible.

Dickenson filled out the FMLA forms anyway and sent them to the company, but he never got any response.

When Dickenson returned to work, he asked to be reclassified as part-time employee, so he could spend more time with Sugg. His supervisor refused and told him his best bet was FMLA leave, even though he’d already been denied.

That’s when Dickenson contacted Wiley.

Sugg is scheduled return to the couple’s Garland home from rehab in about a week, but he’s still on a feeding tube and will require nursing care. With any luck, he’ll someday be able to walk again.

Sugg bragged that he was able to drink his first cup of coffee last week, and he’s looking forward to getting back to his hobby of raising African violets.

Dickenson said he knows of at least seven medical appointments he’ll have to arrange for Sugg once he returns home. He said his vacation time likely will run out by April, and he fears that if he loses his job, the medical expenses will eventually cause him to go broke.

But Dickenson, who’s 51, said he’s committed to taking care of Sugg, even if it means living on the street someday.

“When it runs out, I’ll be fired, and it really hurts to be in a situation like that, because I’ve worked very hard for AT&T,” Dickenson said. “We suffer now, but maybe other people in our shoes in the future, if they work for AT&T, they won’t suffer like we do.”

—  John Wright

More info on Saturday’s Prop 8 protest in Dallas

If you’re interested in helping out with Saturday’s Prop 8 protest in Dallas but couldn’t make last night’s organizational meeting, there’s plenty of contact info and volunteer opportunities after the jump.

—  John Wright