There's something about Mary.
Parental Discretion

Post date: 08.02.00
Issue date: 08.14.00

TONY SNOW: OK. Final: I know this is a touchy subject. Jerry Falwell puts out a comment saying that he supports you. He talks about your daughter's sexual orientation. Was that any of his business?

DICK CHENEY: My--I've got two daughters. They are fine women. I'm very proud of both of them. And I think their private lives are private, and I just firmly believe that. I'm running for public office; they're entitled to their privacy.

SNOW: Nothing like a father's love for his daughters.

CHENEY: Right.

A simple question no one seems to want to ask: If Dick Cheney loves and is proud of his openly lesbian daughter, why is he supporting a man who wants her to live under the threat of criminal sanction? It's no secret that Governor George W. Bush has publicly supported Texas's still-extant gays-only sodomy law, which makes private, consensual sex between gay adults a crime. Does Cheney agree with his running mate's position?

And what about his own public history on homosexual equality? On gay matters, Cheney's congressional record is not just bad. It's shocking.  Cheney was one of only 13 representatives to vote against the landmark 1988 bill that initiated federal funding for AIDS testing and counseling--putting him to the right of even Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, both of whom voted for it. He was one of only 29 House members to vote against the 1988 Hate Crimes Statistics Act, which merely allowed the federal government to collect data on violent crimes based on race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, and he voted for an amendment that added gratuitously anti-gay language to the bill.

He supported measures to cut federal AIDS research and to allow health-insurance discrimination against people with HIV in the District of Columbia. As defense secretary, despite once describing the ban on gays in the military as an "old chestnut," Cheney solidly backed the old policy of harassment of gay soldiers and their ejection, however distinguished their records, from the Armed Forces.

How does Cheney square this history with his belief that his gay daughter, Mary, is "wonderful," "decent," and "hard-working"? I don't know, because the media, which evidently still doesn't regard gay rights as central to our politics, has barely asked. ABC's Cokie Roberts, for example, only brought up the matter at the very end of her interview with Lynne Cheney, the candidate's wife, on last Sunday's "This Week"--as a way of sympathizing with Cheney's plight of having a gay daughter exposed on the campaign trail!

The usually dogged Tim Russert dropped the ball entirely in an almost half-hour-long interview with the would-be veep. Fox's Tony Snow raised the issue--but only to assert that it was none of anyone's business. The New York Times, for all its pretensions to have left homophobia behind, has barely touched the subject. The Washington Post buried it.

When asked, the Cheneys simply say the issue is private. According to Newsweek, Lynne Cheney has declared the topic off-limits: "I have just decided that the thing to do when the subject of either of my daughters comes up is to say, `They are wonderful women.'"

But this is a preposterous argument. Mary Cheney is a 31-year-old out lesbian. She lives with her partner in Colorado. Her last job was at Coors Brewing Company, where she  was responsible specifically for outreach to the gay and lesbian population.

She has funneled corporate money into gay causes and talked about homosexuality to redneck beer distributors. In a recent interview with Girlfriends magazine, a glossy publication targeted to a lesbian audience, Mary Cheney said, "The reason I came to work here [at Coors] is because I knew several other lesbians who were very happy here."

According to Salon, she introduces her girlfriend as her "life partner," and, according to Time, she came out to her parents in the early '90s. Last week on "Larry King Live," Bob Woodward revealed that her homosexuality was a central factor in Dick Cheney's decision not to run for president in 1996.

If Mary Cheney's lesbianism is not a matter of public fact, then nothing is.

Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to have occurred to her parents. Lynne Cheney, for her part, went so far as to deny her daughter's lesbianism entirely.

"Mary has never declared such a thing," Lynne Cheney told Roberts on "This Week." "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."

Thus, in one of her first public interviews as a potential second lady, Lynne Cheney said two things that are blatantly untrue. The first is that her daughter has never declared her lesbianism. The second is that Lynne Cheney doesn't talk about the private lives of her daughters.

In fact, in almost every profile of Lynne Cheney last week, we were informed that she loves spending time with her two granddaughters, the children of her older daughter, Liz. Why is one daughter's heterosexuality a public matter while the other's homosexuality is not?

Here are two possible answers to that question, and they shed more light on "compassionate conservatism" than all the klieg lights in Philadelphia.

The first is that Dick and Lynne Cheney are genuinely embarrassed by and conflicted about their daughter's lesbianism. But, if this is the case, the Cheneys owe us an explanation. It may not be easy, but, when you enter public life at this level, matters that might have remained common knowledge but have rarely been discussed suddenly demand a response on a national stage.

Arizona Senator John McCain had to talk about his divorce and his adopted children.  Bush had to talk about his drinking and never stops talking about his faith. When they affect public officials, private matters that have a direct relationship to public concerns are routinely aired. In periods when profound social issues are being debated, this is even truer.

At some  point in this campaign, Dick Cheney will surely be asked about his views on homosexual equality. It's one of the few issues on which there are real differences between his party and his opponent's. He would have to be a Vulcan--or someone deeply ashamed of his own offspring--not to refer to his own daughter in responding. In a candidate putatively wedded to "compassionate conservatism," one might even hope for more--for a response that adds a human dimension to the inhuman way in which gay people's lives are routinely discussed and caricatured.

There is, however, a second possibility--that the Cheneys don't disapprove of their daughter's lesbianism at all but, for political reasons, must pretend to. After all, Jerry Falwell, one of Bush's key allies on the Christian right, has already described Cheney's daughter as "errant." The Republican platform expresses its opposition to special "rights" for homosexuals.

Cheney comes from Wyoming, the state where Matthew Shepard was murdered, and had to represent his constituents in the 1980s. Perhaps he feels obliged not to break publicly with the homophobes who still dominate his party. One small piece of evidence to support this theory is the absence from both Dick Cheney's and Lynne Cheney's records of any known anti-gay slurs, despite their being surrounded by people who bait homosexuals on a regular basis.

By all accounts, Cheney has treated his gay staffers decently and was deeply supportive of his Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams during his "outing" ordeal. There is no reason to doubt his affection for his gay daughter.

But, in some respects, this scenario is the more damning one. For, if Cheney personally respects gay people but supports policies that segregate and ostracize them for his own personal advancement, then he truly is contemptible. It's surely worse to oppose homosexual equality for opportunistic rather than for principled reasons. At least Pat Robertson seems to believe he is trying to save gay people from eternal damnation; but to support their continued stigmatization for the sake of a bucket of warm spit is morally pitiful.

Perhaps Cheney, like the rest of us, has grown on this subject over the years. Perhaps he now regrets his small part in making the AIDS epidemic even worse than it might otherwise have been and in casting a vote that declared that violence against gay people was not even worth recording.

Perhaps his experience in overseeing the military's persecution of gay servicemembers has led him to have greater sympathy for their plight. (To his credit, he reversed the policy by which the Pentagon once sought to recoup scholarship money from gay soldiers the military had expelled.)  Perhaps he has come to believe from observing his own daughter that gay relationships are not  merely dysfunctional sexual compulsions akin to kleptomania (as Trent Lott holds) but human achievements of love and commitment. Perhaps he now sees that  gay men and women, far from being threats to the traditional family, have always been at its heart.

But, if his views on these matters have evolved, he must say so now. And, if he doesn't, if he remains as silent as he has been, then he should not cavil at the inference that he is proud of his record and sees no problem with a Republican platform that continues to relegate his daughter to second-class citizenship.

One can make some excuses for expediency in any political life. But at a certain point expediency becomes hypocrisy. And, when expediency means the civil and legal punishment of one's own child, it is, in fact, worse than hypocrisy. It is betrayal.