Sexuality and Family in the Political Spotlight


When Sen. Barry Goldwater, dubbed “Mr. Conservative,” learned that his grandson and grandniece were gay, he worked for new laws that would protect their civil rights. When Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House, and his lesbian half-sister, Candace, became a gay activist, he took a more neutral stance. “It’s a free country,” he told the press. State Sen. William “Pete” Knight has been estranged from his son since learning four years ago he is gay.

And now, Dick and Lynne Cheney are faced with their decision, how to handle in public what is essentially a private matter: the sexual orientation of their daughter, Mary.

It would seem a peripheral issue in today’s America, which in many ways is more accepting of diversity. But it is also an interesting sidelight of the presidential campaign--a barometer of our shifting cultural map. If the Republican ticket is elected, the Cheneys will become the highest-ranking political family ever to have an openly gay child. It is a kind of history in the making. And despite continuing requests for privacy from the Cheneys through the Republican campaign headquarters, the “handling” of this family matter is a human interest story that survives because it happens to so many families, who handle it in so many ways.


Lynne Cheney grew irritated Sunday, when ABC’s Cokie Roberts asked, “You have a daughter who has now declared that she is openly gay. Are you worried. . . ?” Cheney interrupted: “Mary has never declared such a thing. . . . I’m appalled at the media interest in one of my daughters. I have two wonderful daughters. . . . They are bright. They are hard working. They are decent. And I simply am not going to talk about their personal lives.”


This spurred many pundits to mention that she indeed had talked about the personal life of daughter Elizabeth, 34, who is married and has three children. The testy TV exchange gave fresh insight into the drama that all tradition-oriented parents face when a child “comes out” as gay or lesbian. In a sense, they must decide whether they too will “come out” to acknowledge and support their child.

Most families have the luxury of time and privacy in which to adjust and recalibrate. In political life, there is neither. And for highly placed conservatives like the Cheneys, there is the added quandary of intense allegiance to the child as well as to the political party whose platform opposes such things as civil rights laws, military service or any other official recognition of the child’s way of life.

While there are likely just as many gay children in the homes of liberal political figures, the problem is particularly vexing for conservatives, and the issue seems to be coming up more and more for them.

Last month, in a highly unusual turn, Republican blueblood William Saltonstall, former Massachusetts state senator, turned his back on the party his Yankee family has supported for generations rather than vote for a ticket he considers antagonistic to the well-being and human rights of his lesbian daughter.

In a letter to the Boston Globe, the usually taciturn and private Saltonstall--whose Republican father, Leverett, served three terms as governor and 22 years in the U.S. Senate--wrote: “I have a lesbian daughter who, with her partner, has adopted three children into a loving family. The national leadership of the Republican party takes the position that no gay people should adopt children, and if they do, the child might be taken away from them to be placed elsewhere. I regard this as a direct attack on my family. While I continue to support local Republicans, as long as the Republican national leadership feels this way, I cannot support it.”


Knight took the opposite tack by authoring Proposition 22, which passed this year. It states that marriage should be reserved for opposite-sex couples. Opponents of the initiative accused the senator of sponsoring it as a way of coping with his angst at having a gay son.


David Knight, in a 1999 letter to The Times, wrote: “Three years ago I told my father I was gay. . . . From that moment on, my relationship with my father was over.” He called the senior Knight’s anti-gay legislation “a blind, uncaring, uninformed . . . reaction to a subject about which he knows nothing, but which serves his political career.”

Reached at his Palmdale office this week, Knight said he sees no reason for the Republican vice presidential candidate to have concern: “None of that will affect his performance.”

From his home in Baltimore, David Knight said that some good might come from the situation the Cheneys face, just as some probably came from the public airing of his own family’s trials. “All these different stories are going to connect with different people on different levels. It’s all positive. We must get the story out, so that people understand we are real people living real lives.”

Candace Gingrich was catapulted into the public eye at 28, when her Georgia Republican half-brother became speaker of the House and the media learned that she was an “out” lesbian. She had never paid much attention to her brother’s politics until then, she said by phone this week. But when she realized they were on opposite sides of the political fence, she became a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, an advocacy group for gay men and lesbians.

She lobbied in Washington for equal rights--a kind of living reproach to her brother’s voting record. But the siblings remained cordial even throughout the headline-making phase, she said. And they maintain that relationship today.

“I think I put Newt in an interesting situation, possibly the same situation the Cheneys feel they are in right now. They may not want to alienate the far-right wing of their party by seeming to look too approving of a [homosexual] child. For instance, if Dick and Lynne were to talk about Mary’s partner in the same sentence as they talk about their other daughter and her family, that might be construed as affirming a gay relationship. And it would not sit well with the far right.”

Former Arizona Sen. Goldwater learned late in life about his relatives. He responded in public this way: “To see the party that fought communism and big government now fighting the gays, well, that’s just plain dumb.” From that point on, he remained a compassionate spokesman, not just for tolerance but for acceptance.


Dee Mosbacher, 51, the activist lesbian daughter of Robert Mosbacher, former Commerce Secretary under George Bush, came out to her parents when she was 20. She became a vocal activist in 1992 after hearing Pat Buchanan speak harshly at the Republican National Convention. A San Francisco psychiatrist and filmmaker, Mosbacher said she and her father have a mutually loving and respectful relationship, but at times each felt the other was being disloyal. “It has not been easy,” she said.

Her father, a “dyed-in-the-wool Republican,” at least listened to her views, even though she knew her outspokenness made him “uncomfortable and unhappy.” Now, she said, “he gets it in a way that he hadn’t before.” He would never repudiate his party, as Saltonstall did, but he does “spread the word,” she said.

Speaking from the Republican Convention, Robert Mosbacher, 73, said he was shocked when his daughter first told him she was gay 30 years ago, but that “it didn’t take long to figure out what’s important.” Today, he said, “We agree on some things and disagree on others but love each other and have mutual respect for each other.” He said at some point he would like to speak to the Cheneys. “I would say, ‘Just relax and enjoy your children.’ ”

In 1995, Dick Cheney told journalist Bob Woodward one reason he decided not to pursue the presidency was that he had a gay relative, Woodward told talk show host Larry King this week. When Woodward was about to reveal the details in a book, he said Cheney “called me up and chewed me out and said, ‘You have no right to do that. It is unfair.’ ” Woodward did not name the relative.

Although Mary Cheney, 31, has apparently never made a formal, public statement about her sexual identity, she worked from mid-1994 until May of this year for Coors Brewery in Colorado, building good will for the company within minority groups, including gays and lesbians. Candace Gingrich, who does not know Mary personally, said in that role at Coors Cheney identified herself as gay. She is an avid sportswoman and many friends have told several publications that she leads a quiet, openly lesbian life with her partner of about five years. They live in Conifer, Colo., a small mountain town southwest of Denver.

David Smith, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, said the campaign strategists are “hiding behind a misguided notion of privacy. It is not a private matter, or a question of an individual being outed against her will. It will be up to Mary as to how assertive she wants to be. I know she loves her father very much. And she will do nothing to cause him any political problems.”


In fact, Mary has stayed largely in the background throughout the Republican Convention. After her father accepted the nomination, he and his wife waved to the crowd alone from the platform, while both daughters stood in the audience. Mike Smith, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Denver and a friend of Mary’s, said she has postponed graduate school to help her father campaign.

Paul Beeman, president of the national organization Parents, Friends and Families of Gays and Lesbians, said he and his wife, like many other parents, wanted to rush back in the closet as soon as his children came out. A retired United Methodist pastor near Seattle, Beeman said he and his wife took some deep gulps when in the span of five months, two of his four children revealed they were gay. Even though he had counseled parents of gay children, he said he and his wife asked all the wrong questions. “We said, ‘My God, what did we do wrong? Was I gone too much? Was my wife too harsh?’ Then we began looking at the family tree,” he said jokingly. “Any gay people on my wife’s side?”

Despite the increased frequency of family members coming out, parents and relatives are still often ashamed, guilty and confused. Coming out, for both parent and child, he said, can sometimes be a lifelong pursuit.

* Lynn Smith contributed to this story.

* Bettijane Levine and Lynn Smith can be reached at