John Kerry is guilty—of having underestimated the persistence in America of fear and hatred of homosexuality. There is no shame in being openly lesbian and no shame in speaking about it. There is certainly no shame in praising a father for failing to sell his openly lesbian daughter down the river.
I can’t think when I last read something as enraging in its bigotry and obtuseness as William Safire’s column this morning about the Mary Cheney brouhaha. Safire writes that until Kerry named Mary Cheney in the third debate, “only political junkies knew that a member of the Cheney family serving on the campaign staff was homosexual.” News flash to Safire: another group in America has been aware of her sexuality for years: gays and lesbians. This isn’t because of some dark grapevine of gossip. Although Safire does not mention it, Cheney worked for years as the Coors Brewing Company’s liaison to the lesbian and gay community. She’s out, and she’s been paid to be out. When lesbians and gays watch the machinations of the Bush-Cheney administration on gay issues, we can’t help but wonder about her and her silence. Love is what psychologists call experience-near. You feel it to be a part of yourself, immediate and sometimes overwhelming. I don’t know Mary Cheney’s political opinions about homosexuality, but those of the Republican party are quite clear. In supporting a vindictive amendment to the Constitution, the party has made it a campaign strategy to rally voters by appealing to their fear and hatred of homosexuals. Whatever her politics, and whether or not she realizes it, Mary Cheney has placed herself where she cannot both stand by her love for her partner and her love for her father without inconsistency. It must be excruciating.
I suspect it’s only possible for her to sustain it because her father has openly demurred from the party’s hysteria about gay marriage and has recognized her love for her partner by, for example, allowing the lesbian couple to greet him onstage after his debate with John Edwards. Either Dick Cheney’s concessions to his daughter on this issue mean something, or they do not. If they mean something, he should not be ashamed of them, and he should not object to having attention paid to them. If they mean nothing—if he is deceiving his daughter with hollow gestures—then they should be exposed. My sense is that they do mean something. And one of those meanings is that one of the men on the Bush-Cheney ticket wishes he were not complicit with cynical fear-mongering.
Kerry referred to Mary Cheney in order to rebut an insinuation by Bush. The moderator had asked Bush whether he thought homosexuality was a choice. “I don’t know,” the president answered. Well, I do, and I’m happy to tell him. It is a choice exactly as much as heterosexuality is, and no further. Everyone, gay or straight, may choose to be celibate, but that’s not what’s at stake here. No one chooses their orientation; no one chooses whether they find men or women attractive. And to deny someone the richness of an intimate, romantic relationship with another adult is wrong. By feigning ignorance about the nature of sexual orientation, Bush was telegraphing to his base that he would deny that richness to gays and lesbians, if he should ever find the legal means to do so. He was referencing a well-known split hair of the fundamentalist right, whereby they profess to love homosexuals as people and merely regret that they act on their homosexual desires.
Against such messages, Kerry pointed out that homosexuals, such as Mary Cheney, almost universally say they have not chosen their orientation. And he suggested that true love for homosexual people is not compatible with a wish to deny them the experience of an adult romantic relationship, as the Cheney’s own support for their daughter attests. It is impossible to think this was hurtful unless you think it is shameful to be gay or to love people who are.