All in the family

Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter, Mary, is expected to stump for the GOP ticket. As the gay corporate relations manager for Coors, she knows all about the hard sell.

Published July 29, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

The gay rights battle appears poised to enter the presidential campaign in an unlikely way. Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney has a lesbian daughter, and friends report she has already put off grad school to play an active role on the campaign trail.

Mary Cheney, 31, is not just any lesbian. Until May, she was the lesbian/gay corporate relations manager for the once-notoriously anti-gay Coors Brewing Co. In that role she became a key player in the pivotal "movement vs. market" debate raging inside the gay activist community, representing the point of view that corporate America is a better friend than government in advancing the cause of gay rights.

Gay leaders don't know what to expect from the surprise addition of a candidate with an openly gay daughter to the Republican ticket. While both Cheney and George W. Bush have been opposed to many gay rights measures, some advocates think the presence of Mary Cheney can't help but advance the cause of social acceptance for gays in both parties.

Judging from her efforts on behalf of Coors, Cheney will go the extra mile for a cause she believes in. To get gay advocates to drop their support for a Coors boycott, for instance, she traveled the country with the winner of the International Mr. Leather 1999 competition -- a hugely popular event on the gay-bar circuit -- meeting with gay leaders to advance the Coors cause.

Friends describe Cheney as extremely close to her father and fiercely loyal to the family. She takes frequent hunting and fishing trips with him; they recently returned from an excursion to South America.

"Family trumps everything," said Bob Witeck, chairman of a public relations firm specializing in gay marketing. He has worked with Coors on its gay strategy, been a close advisor to Cheney and spoken with her since the announcement. "They will close ranks and succeed together," he said. "All other considerations go aside."

On Sunday, the issue of Cheney's sexuality took an odd twist, when her mother Lynne denied ABC's Cokie Roberts' assertion that Mary Cheney has "declared that she is openly gay." An irritated Lynne Cheney shot back: "Mary has never declared such a thing. I would like to say that I'm appalled at the media interest in one of my daughters. I have two wonderful daughters. I love them very much. They are bright; they are hard-working; they are decent. And I simply am not going to talk about their personal lives. And I'm surprised, Cokie, that even you would want to bring it up on this program."

Lynne Cheney's outburst raises a crucial question: Will Mary Cheney be as open about her sexual orientation on the campaign trail as she has been in Denver?

The blond, athletic Cheney stands only medium height, but strikes a commanding physical presence. "She comes across as a cross between a young businesswoman and tennis star," said Human Rights Campaign spokesman David Smith.

She has been open about her sexuality for years, living with her partner in the quiet mountain town of Conifer, southwest of Denver. She plays a highly visible role in the gay community through her work, but retires to the mountains nights and weekends, and isn't widely seen on the Denver social circuit. She's an avid hockey player and golfer and enjoys hiking and outdoor activities.

"She's pretty mainstream American," one friend said. Friends and colleagues describe her as bright, direct and "universally respected." Most spoke on condition of anonymity, and Cheney did not return calls seeking comment on her new role.

"She's tough, very tough," a colleague said. "She'll look you straight in the face and tell you how she feels. No sugar-coating." The direct approach didn't sit well with everyone, and she was respected at Coors but also made a few enemies.

Cheney left Coors in May, and was accepted to the MBA program at the University of Colorado. She was set to begin classes next month, but friends say she has already decided to defer school to work for the campaign. "How often does your father run for vice president?" a friend asked her. The dean's office reports that she has not yet signed up for classes, though that process is still underway for incoming students.

Some gay activists wonder how Cheney can stump for a ticket considered antagonistic to gay rights. Bush opposes workplace anti-discrimination laws, supports a ban on gay adoptions and says he wouldn't allow gays to serve openly in the military. In May he killed the Texas hate crime law because it included sexual orientation. And earlier this year he refused to meet with Log Cabin Republican leaders during the primary campaign, though he later met local Log Cabin leaders at a widely hailed reconciliation meeting.

Dick Cheney has also had a dubious record on gay rights issues. In Congress, he voted against the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1988, and was one of 13 House members to oppose the first major AIDS testing/counseling bill the same year. He was a vocal opponent of open gay military service, both as defense secretary and later during congressional hearings which led to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy of the Clinton administration.

But Cheney publicly supported his defense spokesman Pete Williams when he was outed by the Advocate in 1991. "I have operated on the basis over the years with respect to my personal staff that I don't ask them about their private lives," Cheney said. "As long as they perform their professional responsibilities in a responsible manner, their private lives are their business."

Mary Cheney is used to walking a twisting political line. Working for Coors, she was representing a company hated by many gay activists, trying to burnish its image. But she was also charged by Coors with promoting the gay cause with the company's beer distributors, hardly the most gay-friendly group in America.

"Beer distributors aren't the most educated on the gay and lesbian market," a Cheney colleague said diplomatically.

Until she left Coors, Cheney was a powerful advocate for advancing gay rights through corporate America -- the "market" point of view in the "market vs. movement" debate. Market-oriented gays believe they may have more power as consumers than as voters, and think that once they become coveted targets of corporate America, mass acceptance will follow.

Thus some gay leaders are thrilled by the way companies like American Airlines, Subaru and Miller Brewing have aggressively courted their community. But left-wing activists charge that they're being exploited and co-opted. "We're a movement, not a market," has become the battle cry of the other side, and the fight may be the bloodiest battleground within the gay rights movement today.

At the heart of that controversy stands Coors Brewing Co., one of the most hated corporations in gay America since the 1970s. Once synonymous with right-wing causes, it was accused of spying on its workers and discriminating against a variety of minorities, including gays, blacks and Latinos. The most infamous charge was that the brewery forced employees to take polygraph tests about their sexual orientation.

Labor unions organized a boycott in 1974, and California gay rights pioneers Harvey Milk and Morris Knight called on gays to join the boycott, which has raged for more than 20 years.

Coors spokesman David Taylor says the company aggressively worked to change both policies and image in the late '70s and early '80s, when Coors began expanding and developing a national marketing strategy. The company added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy in the '80s and offered domestic partnership benefits in 1995. "They have become one of the most gay-friendly companies in the country," HRC spokesman David Smith said Wednesday.

The emergence of gays in the Coors family is widely believed to have helped moderate its views. Dallas Coors, grandson of company founder Adolph Coors, was a co-founder of HRC, though he did not work for his family's brewing company or the foundation. The real breakthrough came with the next generation, in the person of Scott Coors, son of Bill Coors, who retired as chairman of the brewery earlier this year and remains chairman of the holding company. Scott Coors has been openly gay in the Denver community for years, with no public resistance from the family. He serves as Coors' director of product damage prevention, and is active in the gay employee group.

Coors has also been battling Miller and Anheuser-Busch for the lucrative gay beer market. Cheney's job was to rebuild gay acceptance and gradually increase market share in Coors' target markets. That task took her all over the country, but Coors has arguably made its most ambitious pitch for gay support in its backyard, in Denver (Coors' brewery and headquarters in Golden sit on the outskirts of the metropolitan area).

During Cheney's tenure, the company pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into local and state gay groups, from Equality Colorado to the Colorado AIDS Project. It has contributed $54,000 to Denver Pridefest over the past three years, currently the "presenting sponsor," meaning its bottle-cap logo appears on every related sign, banner and T-shirt strewn about the region for months.

"She opened a lot of doors at Coors for us," says Mike Smith, executive director of the gay community center that organizes Denver's Pridefest. He said a three-year agreement she negotiated will "substantially increase" its support and make it the largest corporate contributor to the organization. (Full disclosure: I sit on the Pridefest steering committee, but was uninvolved in the negotiations.)

Coors spokesman Taylor says the company has contributed about $500,000 to gay organizations over the past decade, most generously in Denver, Atlanta, Miami and Boston.

But the stigma lives on. Coors has been rebuffed by the gay community in markets such as San Francisco, according to sources familiar with the company's marketing plan. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation faced an avalanche of abuse within the gay community when it accepted a $110,000 donation -- under Cheney's tenure -- in 1998. The L.A. Coors Boycott Committee threatened to award them a "Coors Whore Award."

The conflict erupted even more bitterly this February, when the Denver HRC chapter hit Cheney up for a $5,000 donation from Coors as a corporate sponsor for its annual fundraising dinner. Cheney quickly came through with the approval, but the problems surfaced on the receiving end. HRC's national chapter got wind of the donation in February, and called the locals to inform them the money must be returned. An acrimonious struggle erupted, with the national office lined up against Coors and the local chapter.

The national office won. HRC was already under attack within the gay community for its association with the gay Millennium March, and couldn't afford any more controversial moves, explained Joe Barrows, who negotiated on behalf of the locals.

Cheney's friends say she was infuriated by the response, and particularly angry at HRC executive director Elizabeth Birch. HRC agreed to reexamine the issue this spring, and on July 7, Birch flew to Colorado for a private meeting with Coors. Barrows and David Smith said the parties have moved closer to reaching an understanding, but are not ready to make an announcement yet. One member of the board of governors predicted Coors will eventually make a large corporate donation to HRC, which will be embraced in a high-profile press conference, applauding Coors as a leading company in acceptance of gays in its workforce.

But HRC was hardly the toughest opponent Cheney has faced. The crux of her job has been cracking open markets antagonistic to a Coors-gay alliance on both sides. Coors targets specific markets and then sends in a team of specialists in key niches -- such as blacks, Hispanics and gays -- to do outreach to those communities.

Cheney would then fly out to the market to win over both distributors and gays, explained one source who was familiar with her work. She would frequently find herself in a small town in the South, for instance, trying to convince a local good-ol'-boy distributor how great it would be to set up promotions at the local gay bar and spend some time hanging out with the gay managers and bartenders there. The next morning she might spend with a hostile gay organization, trying to convince them to accept what many still perceived as blood money.

Frequently, the distributors -- many franchise operations independent of Coors -- would try to brush Cheney off, saying they'd already tried, and the gay market was resistant to Coors. "Mary's trick is to say, 'Well I think times have changed,' and then kind of hold their hand to reintroduce themselves," her colleague said. "And then she goes into the community and starts identifying groups where Coors money can have an impact."

Much of Cheney's work involved outreach to various gay subcultures, from drag queens to cowboys on the gay rodeo circuit. She spent a great deal of time trying to learn about the leather phenomenon, because it has a tight national network of aficionados who maintain close links through the Internet as well as annual events like the International Mr. Leather competition.

Cheney spent months researching the leather phenomenon, attending events some would find distasteful and carting home stacks of books from the library and bookstores. "My partner wants me to get rid of all these books," a friend quoted her as saying. "I'm so tired of looking at hairy men in leather!"

But the research paid off. Cheney teamed up with a powerful ally to spearhead the effort: International Mr. Leather 1999. Bruce Chopnik lives in Denver and took the crown just about the time Cheney's efforts were getting underway. They flew to San Francisco to meet with leaders of the boycott, and to Chicago to powwow with the owners of the International Mr. Leather competition, which Chopnik said draws 20,000 to 25,000 participants a year to its convention.

"It caused a lot of political unrest on my side," but Cheney was constantly by his side to support and advise him, he said. "Whenever I got slammed with a question, Mary was just a phone call away."

Chopnik said Coors sponsored several leather events around the country, and was considering a donation to the National Leather Archive Museum in Chicago when Cheney left. When he stepped down from his title this May, Coors footed the bill for his farewell roast in Chicago.

He said the leather community was extremely resistant to Coors in the beginning, but now describes them as "highly supportive." He concurred with the assessment of other gay leaders that the impact had rippled out far beyond the leather community.

"In the long run, she's opened the doors to a lot of people's minds," he said. "We worked together to dispose of the mystique about Coors in the gay community," he said. Chopnik said he was also approached by representatives of Procter and Gamble, to ascertain how Cheney made such inroads so quickly.

Cheney is respected in the gay community, yet strangely enigmatic for someone in such a visible role. She conscientiously avoids trading on her family name and plays her political views fairly close to the vest, sources throughout the community report. One activist after another said she seemed to support gay rights causes, but come to think of it, she rarely expressed those opinions directly. There have been occasional glimpses: "She always talks about how important the domestic partner benefits are," one said.

She is considered active, but not necessarily activist. "It's hard to tell how much of it is her and how much is part of her job," one friend said. She is registered as an independent.

Local and national gay leaders are preparing for a fresh blast of attention thanks to Cheney, but their opinions on how it will play out vary widely, with an intricate web of benefits and risks.

So far, the Bush team appears to be welcoming its new gay member with open arms. Its first response leaked out in the Drudge Report Tuesday, in a piece titled, "BUSH SAID TO EMBRACE CHENEY DAUGHTER'S SEXUALITY." It quotes an unnamed "top Bush source" saying: "Being gay or lesbian is not a liability in this campaign. The governor embraces both of Mr. Cheney's daughters and will invite them to campaign with him."

"If the Bush campaign is saying that, that is a positive step," HRC's David Smith said. "It's not something they've articulated before in very clear terms."

Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan said the campaign could not verify those statements.

"Secretary Cheney has asked that the private lives of his family be left private," Sullivan said Friday. He was unaware of any role Mary Cheney would play at the convention, and noted that Bush's daughters had no official role either. He could not say whether Mary Cheney's partner would accompany her to the convention, or onto the podium during the traditional family gathering.

Local gay leader Mike Smith, also co-founder of the Names Project, sees the chief benefit in social acceptance rather than electoral politics. "There's a lot of social positives from this for a vice presidential candidate to have an openly gay child and have that not perceived as a negative in choosing that person," he said.

This week's events seem to contrast to the 1996 campaign, when Cheney decided not to run for president at least partly because of the exposure to his daughter.Lynne Cheney's comments to Cokie Roberts on Sunday, however, suggest that the Bush-Cheney team does not entirely have its story straight about the importance of Cheney's sexuality.

However, some leaders were afraid that an articulate poster child for gay Republicanism might bolster Bush's compassionate conservative appeal, and neutralize some of Gore's expected charges of intolerance.

"There is a danger, and we can back it up with numbers," said National Gay Lesbian Task Force spokesman David Elliot. He said voter research showed 5.5 percent of the electorate identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and typically voted from 29 percent to 33 percent Republican. But that percentage dropped to an all-time low of 22 percent after the 1992 convention, best known for Pat Buchanan's vitriolic speech, he said.

"Gays and lesbians watched the Republican Convention in '92 and were scared to death," Elliot said. "The number of [gay, lesbian and bisexual] voters plummets when Republicans bash our community, but then some of them drift back when they soften the rhetoric a bit."

He foresees large defections from this Democratic base if the Bush campaign visibly embraces Mary Cheney, and markets her as effectively as they've used Bush's Hispanic nephew George P. Bush in that community.

HRC sees it differently. David Smith said gay issues frequently lie dormant for years with much of the population, until an event like Matthew Shepard's murder, or the killing of PFC Barry Winchell last year, temporarily focuses attention on hate crimes.

Mary Cheney's emergence will force the spotlight onto those issues and embarrass the campaign with intolerant positions, Smith said. "It presents all sorts of difficult questions." He scoffs at the notion that voters will accept what he calls "Trojan horse politics -- all those hard-right positions, packaged as conservative."

"That's not going to happen," he said. "The fact that [Bush] opposes Mary Cheney adopting a child -- it's not going to happen."

By Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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