Along comes Mary

Having a lesbian in the second family eases the pain of losing gay-friendly Bill Clinton. Now gay rights action returns to the state and local level -- where it matters most, anyway.

Published January 22, 2001 8:55PM (EST)

Virtually every gay person I know is distraught at the rise of the Bush-Cheney presidency and the passing of the gay-friendly Clinton-Gore administration. But they ignore an important symbolic sliver of good news: A woman who even the Rev. Jerry Falwell knows is a lesbian stood beside her father as he was sworn in as vice president Saturday at the Inauguration.

And Mary Cheney, Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, is not just any lesbian. Until last spring she was essentially a professional dyke, employed by the Coors Brewing Co. as its liaison to the gay community -- a high-profile position in queer-and-beer circles. She has lived openly in Colorado with her girlfriend and is, by all accounts, extremely close to her family.

Now, it's true that Mary Cheney has not uttered a public word about her sexual orientation since her father's selection; she was zipped up and hermetically sealed by the campaign, presumably with her own consent. In that sense, she's a perfect metaphor for how society still deals with gay and lesbian issues -- "don't ask, don't tell" writ large on the public stage. "We'll grant you the courtesy of acknowledging that you exist because we have no choice anymore," says America. "But please -- just don't talk about it!"

Still, it delights me that a woman who loves her own sex was nestled comfortably among cheering homophobes. Her presence -- even her enigmatic, zipped-up, hermetically sealed presence -- is a thumb in the eye of religious-right zealots, who would like us not only to shut up but to disappear as well.

Most of my gay friends think I'm nuts. To them, the only thing that Mary Cheney's tight-lipped existence reveals is the hypocrisy of her dad, who clearly loves her but still binds himself hand and heart to the frothing-at-the-mouth crowd. And many gays think it's hilarious when I suggest that the oh-so-pious may feel slightly constrained in how much they can demonize gays as long as Cheney and his daughter are around.

"I don't think it matters a whit that Cheney has a lesbian daughter," says longtime lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid. "When it gets down to the level of policymaking, the positions of the old Bush and the new Bush administrations are going to be the same. They're going to stink."

She may well be right. It's likely that this silent lesbian at the fringes of high-profile events is the best we'll get from the Bush administration. If the Clinton-Gore team was big on inclusive rhetoric but fell way short on legislative accomplishments, we'll see much the same thing from the Bushies -- minus the inclusive rhetoric.

Is there any hope for Bush on gay rights issues? In Texas, he expressed support for the state's archaic sodomy law and declined appeals to push for inclusion of sexual orientation in hate crimes legislation. He met with members of the gay Log Cabin Republicans during the campaign only after being roundly criticized for dissing them. Most gays recognized the differences between the two major candidates; according to exit polls, self-identified gays and lesbians went for Al Gore by almost three to one.

The difference between the outgoing and incoming administrations could not be starker. Clinton mentioned gays in his acceptance speech on Election Night in 1992. Bush, of course, did not; in fact he has almost never uttered the terms "gay," "lesbian" or even AIDS. The great uniter has never signaled that he considers us an integral element of his America.

By most accounts, however, Bush is not a virulent homophobe, although he's desperate to retain the political support of those who are. "Bush is certainly not a gay-baiting sort of guy, and he certainly has personal relationships with gay friends," says Glen Maxey, an openly gay Democratic member of the Texas Legislature. "But he does have a lot of debts to pay to the religious right."

Not that the Clinton years were without their difficulties, of course. Clinton is, after all, the man who gave us "don't ask, don't tell" in the military and signed the vile Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Ironically, many on both the gay left and the gay right can bond over their shared disgust for Clinton. "He threw us just enough sops (an administration appointment here, using the word 'gay' in a speech there) to keep us quiet when he betrayed us," wrote Bush supporter Dale Carpenter in a recent column for the Bay Area Reporter, a San Francisco gay newspaper. "We accepted this deal because, like a battered spouse, we thought we'd never had it so good." Gay Ralph Nader voters, who accepted their candidate's contention that there was and is little difference between the two major parties, obviously agreed with that assessment of Clinton.

But it's beyond dispute that he did far more for gays than any other president. Although it's clearly true that he recognized our usefulness as a voting bloc and fund-raising source, and was quick to discard our interests when he deemed it expedient, he also gave the impression that he actually liked and valued and enjoyed queer folk. And symbolism or not, what a refreshing change that was.

"For all his faults and failings, when Clinton spoke, he spoke in a way that made me, as a lesbian, feel that I was included in his vision of what he wanted this country to look like," says Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. "That tone went a long way toward a national softening in anti-gay sentiment and attitudes. I think one of the things we will miss most obviously and immediately [with Bush] is that tone of inclusion and tolerance."

And beyond the rhetoric and openness of the Clinton White House, the former president took some key steps that bolstered gay access and visibility. He established within the White House a liaison office to the gay and lesbian community, and he signed an executive order banning sexual orientation discrimination in federal employment -- initiatives whose future is now in doubt. And an undeniable achievement of his tenure was the appointment, for the first time ever, of hundreds of out gays and lesbians to important and unimportant positions throughout the administration. When some nominees ran into stormy seas in Congress, he stood behind them more than he did, say, Lani Guinier.

Although some gays dismissed agency appointments as little more than window dressing, those who understand how the federal bureaucracy works recognized how significant it was. Congress may pass the laws, but federal agencies have broad discretion in developing policies and regulations to implement and administer them. In ways large and small, decisions made at every level of the federal government exert a real influence on our lives.

Under Janet Reno, the Justice Department took an aggressive and public stance against hate crimes based on sexual orientation, particularly after Matthew Shepard's murder. The Immigration and Naturalization Service began looking favorably upon foreigners seeking asylum because of persecution as homosexuals. The Department of Health and Human Services supported research on lesbian-specific health issues and encouraged discussion of the emotional health needs of queer youth. The Department of Education helped publish a guide for schools on how to combat anti-gay harassment. The Small Business Administration conducted seminars at gay community centers to let entrepreneurs know how they could qualify for SBA loan programs.

The Bush administration may well not continue any of those policies or programs. And some of Bush's Cabinet nominations have filled members of the gay and lesbian community with dread.

It's certainly not good news for gays that former Missouri Sen., arch-conservative and outspoken gay rights opponent John Ashcroft will play a key role in selecting Supreme Court nominees should he be confirmed as attorney general. He will also be in charge of statistics on hate crimes, including those based on sexual orientation. Any guesses as to how many taxpayer bucks Ashcroft would expend on that?

Mel Martinez, the Orange County, Fla., chairman slated to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, opposed an ordinance to ban anti-gay job discrimination against county workers. Interior Department nominee Gale Norton was an enthusiastic defender of Colorado's notorious Amendment 2, which barred all gay rights laws in the state and was eventually thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And we're not likely to see any more gay diplomats, like San Francisco philanthropist James Hormel. In a gutsy move, Clinton appointed Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg while Congress was out of session because conservative Republicans -- including Ashcroft -- refused to allow his nomination to come to the floor for a vote. We'll be lucky if just one gay Republican -- make that one openly gay Republican -- gets appointed to anything, including the federal broccoli-pricing board or cosmetics development commission.

So the gay rights movement is going to have to dance fancy just to sustain what gains it has achieved since 1992. And that's not all bad news. During the Clinton years, the national community focused much effort -- far too much, say some grass-roots activists -- on federal lobbying and cocktail-party schmoozing and arm-twisting for legislation like federal hate crimes and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Though the number of cosponsors for both measures gradually rose, neither came close to becoming law. And barring a miracle comparable to the parting of the Red Sea, it's certainly not likely to happen during the next four years.

From now on, the movement will have to field a strong defense just to beat back federal anti-gay initiatives -- efforts to restrict discussion of homosexuality in schools, for example, or to cut back on funding for AIDS education and safe-sex programs -- rather than proactively pushing for positive measures. And progress, when it comes, is more likely to emerge at the state and local levels far away from the marble halls of Washington; that's where the real action will be, and where the concrete effects of advances will be most keenly felt. Gay residents will likely garner more protection from the passage of a local or statewide ordinance against employment discrimination than from any federal bill rammed through Congress.

"Certainly the honeymoon for gay issues at the national level is over," says Scott Winkler of Nebraska Advocates for Justice and Equality, which fought a losing battle in November to defeat an anti-gay ballot measure barring recognition of same-sex partnerships. "I haven't heard Bush say the word 'gay' or 'lesbian' or 'bisexual' or 'transgender' once in all his conciliatory speeches, and I don't expect him to. It certainly points to the importance of local organizing."

So the news is gloomy on the federal front. But across the country, in the cities and states where normal people actually live their lives, the election was not half-bad from the gay and lesbian perspective. There were some losses, sure, but some encouraging victories as well.

In Vermont, the governor who supported passage of legislation creating gay civil unions won handily in a race that both sides viewed as a referendum on the issue. But gay Vermonters should think twice about moving next door to Maine if they want job security; voters there turned down a ballot initiative to bar sexual orientation discrimination.

Oregon voters, for their part, rejected a statewide anti-gay measure for the fourth time in the past dozen years; you'd think the Oregon Citizens Alliance, the religious-right group that has sponsored all of the initiatives, would finally get the message. This one, informally dubbed "No Promo Homo," would have cut state funding to any public education facilities that presented a positive view of homosexuality.

But Nebraskans voted overwhelmingly for a state constitutional amendment that barred not just gay marriage but domestic partnerships as well. An anti-gay-marriage initiative passed in Nevada as well, but the public will have to approve it a second time in 2002 before it goes into effect.

Meanwhile, California doubled the number of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender state legislators -- actually, just lesbian -- to four; one of them, former "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" star Sheila Kuehl, has jumped from the Assembly to the Senate. And Michigan and Georgia elected their first openly queer state representatives ever, bringing the total around the country to more than 40. To be sure, that's a tiny fraction of the thousands of members of state legislatures in all 50 states, but even one openly gay or lesbian representative can play a key role in swaying enough wavering colleagues to pass progressive bills or defeat odious ones.

So if the election energizes gays and lesbians to become more involved in grass-roots efforts, so much the better. And even those in the dumps over the depressing national results might want to take a few deep breaths and reflect on the long-term perspective. Despite the current setbacks, says John D'Emilio, professor of gender and women's studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the entire cultural landscape has shifted dramatically over the past couple of decades.

"It is a sign of significant change that except for the most rabidly conservative evangelicals, the existence of gay and lesbian people is just taken for granted as a fact," he says. "We can debate particular issues, but the bottom line is that when Americans imagine and think about their world, gays and lesbians are part of it."

And that includes the world of our shiny, new conservative Republican president, whether or not he cares to acknowledge it.

By David Tuller

David Tuller is a contributing writer at Salon. He is the author of "Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia."

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Dick Cheney George W. Bush Lgbt