Friday, August 27, 2010

Former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman Comes Out as Gay: Making Forgiveness Real Through Acts of Atonement

About Ken Mehlman's conversion:

In case you haven't already heard, Ken Mehlman, former chair of the Republican National Committee, came out of the closet this week as a gay man.  In an interview with Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic, Mehlman indicates that he is gay and has recently recognized and come to terms with this fact about himself.

Mehlman's sexual orientation has long been the source of speculation.  Indeed, the fact that he is gay has been an open secret in the gay community, particularly after Mike Rogers at BlogActive outed Mehlman a number of years ago.

And here's what's producing lively conversation in the gay community of the U.S.: not only was Mehlman gay and closeted during the period in which his Republican party made gay citizens human cannon fodder in ugly political battles designed to bring right-wing voters to the polls, but Mehlman was right at the center of the strategy meetings at which these game plans to use gays as political objects were hatched.

And now he wants to atone.

You can find and read for yourself any number of suggestions from folks writing about these issues now, who are offering suggestions for precisely how Mehlman can try to make reparation for the serious damage he and his political party have done to gay human beings over the course of  his political career.  What I want to do here is to give readers my own take on these issues.

There's first the question of whether the gay community should open its arms to Mehlman now that he has come out.  And about that, I don't think there is or will be much controversy.  Our history as a minority community predisposes us, I think, to make room even for our own members who have inflicted pain on us--once they've come to terms with their identity as gay or lesbian folks.

It's what we do--as many minority communities do, in similar circumstances.  Having felt the lash at one's own back, it's hard for one to turn to stone when someone else is in need of a welcoming place within your community.  All of us know the struggles through which one walks--like walking through fire--to come to self-acceptance as a gay person in a hostile culture, the challenge to admit one's identity to oneself, to claim it and share it with others.  When those struggles don't hollow our humanity out entirely, they give us a feel for others--for anyone--going through similar struggles to deal with stigmatization and exclusion.

In my case, it would also be entirely inconsistent to argue on one day that, for faith communities, the catholic imperative is to make room for others in a way that stretches our boundaries--it would be inconsistent to argue for that ethical imperative within my faith community and then, on the following day, to deny the same principle in a minority community to which I belong.  I cannot in good conscience say that my church, which has welcomed me as a sinner, should exclude people with whom I strongly disagree, including Newt, Deal, or Erik, and whose actions I find malicious and unethical--though I have argued and will argue that my church's welcome of Roger, Jeannine, or Roy ought to be just as warm as it is for the Newts and Eriks of the world.

(And for my own connection to my church, it would have made a world of difference had the Catholic church's welcome of me as a sinner been accompanied by just treatment of me as an employee working in Catholic institutions.  When your job is taken away without any explanation, simply because of who you are, when you are left without money to pay house payments or buy food, when you live for years without health insurance, when you have to deal with all of this while providing care for an aging and infirm parent--all due to decisions made by Catholic institutions about you and your human worth--it's hard to feel the welcome, to say the least.)

About whether Ken Mehlman will be welcomed by the gay community now that he has come out, I don't think there's much doubt.  But about how he should handle his repentance and attempt to atone for the sins of his past, I think there is now and will remain considerable controversy.  And there should be controversy about these matters.

There's a wing of people in most communities, including faith communities, who seem to think that asking those who enter communion after they have damaged members of a group to atone, to confess, to make right what they've done wrong, is cruel and unjust.  Forgive and forget, one wing of any community, whether a faith community or a secular one, insists when cases like this come up.

I'm inclined, however, to think that this approach to forgiveness makes the true meaning of forgiveness null and void.  Real forgiveness demands reparation.  If we're sincere about asking for forgiveness when we've wronged others, we have to offer to heal the wounds we have inflicted, insofar as we can possibly do that.  

Ken Mehlman is now in a position not only to do good to the gay community by representing this community within a political party known for its ugly homophobia.  He is also in a position to do good by doing actual, real acts of atonement to assist those he has harmed.

Mehlman has become rich through his political activities and connections.  He has accrued wealth at the expense of the gay brothers and sisters he has not only denied, but whom he has harmed in the past.  If Mehlman was closeted during his years of anti-gay political strategizing, and if he did not see himself as a gay man in those years, the closet in which he lived was nonetheless gold-lined.  And perhaps it was the glitter of the gold walls themselves that blinded him to his own gay reflection in them.  That wealth--and his power and influence--now need to be used to heal some of the wounds he has inflicted.

Whether Mehlman takes concrete steps to make good on his promise to bring healing remains to be seen.  To me, it seems strongly inconsistent that he continues to insist he accepts the Republican party line and remains a member in good standing of a party whose political future has been staked, for a long time now, on bashing gay human beings.  

I wonder if, with Mehlman, we're seeing the beginning of a new narrative of softer, gentler, kinder Republicanism that wants us to believe it recognizes the damage it has done through its homophobic strategies and policies, and wants to be forgiven.  While it continues with business as usual . . . . And so I wonder just how much that narrative can mean--how honest it is, to be frank--when it remains embedded in the very policies and strategies that have brought gay persons so much harm.  

And I'm speaking here not just of the Republican strategy of targeting gay Americans, but of its persistent strategy of targeting any vulnerable minority at points at which it stands to gain from such behavior: its persistent strategy of targeting people of color, immigrants, Muslims, women, the poor, etc.  There's a larger narrative at work here, and it needs to be contested by anyone who is sincere about wanting to challenge the homophobia of the Republican party.

With Mehlman's request to be forgiven, I feel just a bit like a survivor of some genocidal regime who's being asked to forgive and forget the genocide, while swallowing a tiny pill of the ideology that brought the genocide in the first place.  For me and where I ultimately end up as I assess Mehlman's coming out, everything will depend on whether I see his words of repentance translated into authentic acts of healing in the days to come--acts to heal wounds he himself and friends to whom he remains close have inflicted on real human beings.