The last presidential debate highlighted clear and significant differences between John Kerry and George Bush on domestic issues like minimum wage, healthcare, education and even gay marriage. George Bush supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage while John Kerry, though he believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman, doesn't.
But if you caught only the postdebate banter, you might not know this. Instead, campaign surrogates and pundits have been obsessed with whether or not John Kerry (and earlier John Edwards) invaded Mary Cheney's privacy by noting that the Vice President's daughter is a lesbian.
Did they? I don't think so.
It's not like Mary Cheney's been quietly pursuing lesbianism by playing softball and raising cats in Northampton. She has devoted her entire career to providing cover for lesbian-hating organizations, corporations and political parties.
Before the 2000 campaign she worked as a liaison to the gay and lesbian community for Coors Brewing Company, a rather masochistic occupation, since Coors is just about as antigay as you can get. In the early 1970s Coors required prospective employees to submit to a lie-detector test in which the company asked if the respondent was a homosexual (prompting Harvey Milk to organize a boycott of Coors beer). Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the Coors family used generous donations from the Adolph Coors Foundation to launch right-wing groups like the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation--which coined the term "the homosexual agenda" in publications like Gays, AIDS and You. Meanwhile, the company busted unions (leading to an AFL-CIO boycott), and individual family members like William Coors made racist speeches to black audiences claiming "one of the best things that they [slave traders] did for you was to drag your ancestors over here in chains" (this statement led to a boycott by numerous minority groups).
Facing a nationwide protest, the Coors family, which controls both the brewery and the foundation, executed a savvy PR campaign. In 1993 they restricted the Adolph Coors Foundation's grants to Colorado organizations, while spinning off $36.5 million of unrestricted assets to endow the non-Coors named (though still Coors-controlled) Castle Rock Foundation, which continued to fund far-right groups. And while Coors Brewing extended domestic partnership benefits to gays and lesbians in 1995, its former CEO and favorite son, Peter Coors, is now running for Senate in Colorado on a platform that touts his support of a sweeping constitutional amendment that would not only ban gay marriage but could also eliminate domestic partnership benefits for unmarried couples.
At the very center of the Coors duck and cover operation was Mary Cheney, who was hired as "corporate relations manager for the gay and lesbian market" not because of her PR-savvy but because she was lesbian, a Republican and the daughter of Dick and Lynne Cheney. Not that she wasn't deeply committed to her job: As PR flack she toured the country with 1999 International Mr. Leather to promote Coors beer in gay bars. Cheney was not just a member of the lesbian community but a market analyst who researched, cultivated and delivered that community to a corporate dynasty seeking to paint over decades of active support for homophobic causes.
In 2002 Mary Cheney joined the board of the gay Republican Unity Coalition (the even-more-right-wing alternative to the Log Cabin Republicans), declaring that the RUC "reflects my fundamental beliefs and principles" and that "we can help achieve equality for all gay and lesbian Americans." As Mary Cheney was uttering these words, John Ashcroft's Justice Department was busy filing an amicus brief in the Lawrence v. Texas sodomy case that, had the Supreme Court agreed with it, would have kept lesbian sex a felony crime in several states. Cheney quietly left RUC after one year, just as President Bush rushed to Rick Santorum's defense when the senator likened homosexuality to bigamy, incest and bestiality (much to the dismay of the RUC). And her name is notably absent from RUC statements lamenting Bush's support for the Federal Marriage Amendment.
So is it relevant that Cheney, the director of operations for her father's campaign--one that supports a constitutional amendment that would permanently install gays and lesbians as second-class citizens (even if Dick, Lynne and Mary do not)--is a lesbian? You bet it is. Mary Cheney has made it so. She is the very embodiment of Republican hypocrisy on gay issues.
I take it that this is the kind of hypocrisy that Kerry and Edwards meant to call out during their debates. But I wish they had done it more directly, less clumsily. Instead of seizing moderator Gwen Ifill's invitation to hammer home the discrepancy between Bush and Cheney's views on gay marriage, Edwards's unctuous testament to how much Dick and Lynne "love" and "embrace" their "gay daughter" essentially let Cheney off the hook. Instead of preposterously claiming to know Mary Cheney's opinion on the origins of homosexuality, why didn't Kerry go on the offensive? Why not simply point out that Bush's just-professed love for dignity, tolerance, respect and a free society are incompatible with a discriminatory amendment that would curtail rather than expand constitutional rights? Why not note that half of all Americans oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment, including Bush's Vice President?
In framing the gay marriage issue in terms of the familial and the personal, the Kerry/Edwards campaign played into the "compassionate conservative" strategy that allows Republicans to appear as if they are supporting individual gays and lesbians while they actively pursue homophobic policies. Now Dick and Lynne Cheney look like proud, supportive parents of a lesbian daughter they righteously defended from attack. And John Kerry's the one accused by William Safire and David Brooks of gay-baiting. Does anyone remember in this topsy-turvy shuffle which party would have preferred to keep lesbianism not just private, but also illegal?