Before Mary and Liz Cheney, there were Newt and Candace Gingrich.
Starting in the ‘90s, the Gingrich siblings -- one a straight, conservative politician and the other a married, gay activist -- played out the same family drama over gay marriage that is now roiling the Cheney clan.
“The struggle that the Cheney family is going through is one that lots and lots of families go through when it comes to LGBT family members,” Candace Gingrich told me Monday from her home in Hyattsville, Md. “I feel for them, because it’s magnified about 8,000 times, but the bottom line is that one sister does not accept the basic right of her other sister. Nobody running for office should be espousing that anyone should have less opportunity and less rights than anyone else.”
Earlier Monday, after Mary Cheney and her wife, Heather Poe, took to Facebook to express their anger and disappointment over Liz Cheney’s disavowal of gay marriage on a Sunday talk show, Dick and Lynne Cheney released a statement about the daughters’ feud. The statement seemed like damage control for Liz, whose Wyoming U.S. Senate bid has been faltering. The Cheneys emphasized their eldest daughter’s lifelong opposition to gay marriage and said the “many kindnesses” shown to her sister should not be construed as support for gay marriage.
To many, it appeared they were taking sides in their daughters’ tiff.
The dynamic felt familiar to Candace Gingrich, who in 1995, just after her brother ascended to the speakership of the House of Representatives, plunged into gay activism, trading on her famous family name to become a political thorn in the side of her powerful brother.
Like the Cheney parents, the Gingriches’ mother, Kit, was protective of her eldest child’s political career.
“When I first spoke out and came to D.C. the first time,” said Gingrich, “my mother said, ‘Don’t go dragging Newtie’s name through the mud’ -- as if my being open about my queerness and activism was part of an evil plot concocted by the Democrats,” Gingrich told me Tuesday.
Before long, though, even as her brother embraced the Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 and declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court this year, Kit Gingrich came around.
“It didn’t take her too long to be supportive of the things I was doing as well — including filming a PSA in support of workplace protection for LGBT workers,” Gingrich said.
Over the years, Candace, who works as director of Youth and Campus Outreach for the Human Rights Campaign, has publicly appealed to her brother.
“Stop being a hater, big bro,” she pleaded in a 2008 open letter after he bashed opponents of Prop. 8, the California anti-gay marriage initiative, since overturned, that passed on the very day President Obama was first elected.
“What really worries me is that you are always willing to use LGBT Americans as political weapons to further your ambitions,” wrote Candace. “That’s really so ‘90s, Newt.”
In 2009, Gingrich married Rebecca Jones, and changed her last name to Gingrich-Jones. They are now divorcing.
Her brother and his wife, Callista, were invited to the wedding, but were out of the country and did not attend. They did, however, send gifts, and attended a gathering of both families prior to the wedding. Candace Gingrich said she sees the couple occasionally and does not consider herself “estranged” from her brother, as has often been reported. “We don’t meet monthly for brunch, but I see them.”
There are encouraging signs that even the most ardent social conservatives can come around. Often, the change of heart has to do with a family member who is gay. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, on Mitt Romney’s vice presidential short list, announced in March that his college-age son, Will, is gay. A longtime opponent of gay marriage, Portman has now embraced it.
(According to John Heilman and Mark Halperin, authors of “Double Down,” a chronicle of the 2012 campaign, Portman tried to remove himself from consideration as Romney’s running mate because Will, who was out at Yale, was not ready to face national scrutiny. The Portmans wanted to make their announcement about Will, and Rob’s about-face on gay marriage, on their own timetable. The campaign asked Portman to stay on its short list, however, because Romney feared looking bad if much-ballyhooed potential running mates like Portman appeared to bail. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan was the eventual VP nominee.)
Even Newt Gingrich has softened his stance.
As recently as January 2011, as he sought the Republican presidential nomination, Gingrich was rigid about gay marriage. Politically, he had to persuade evangelical Christian voters that he embraced “traditional” marriage despite his own history of marital failure and transgression. “It’s pretty simple: Marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said at the time. “This is a historic doctrine driven deep into the Bible. … The effort to create alternatives to marriage between a man and a woman are perfectly natural pagan behaviors, but they are a fundamental violation of our civilization.”
But less than two years later, with nothing as weighty as the GOP presidential nomination at stake, the former history professor acknowledged the tide has turned: “It is in every family. It is in every community. The momentum is clearly now in the direction in finding some way to ... accommodate and deal with reality. And the reality is going to be that in a number of American states -- and it will be more after 2014 -- gay relationships will be legal, period.”
Candace wrote later that she was proud of her big brother. “The time my wife Rebecca and I have spent with Newt has had an effect and he has evolved. ... It’s inspiring to know that conversations we as LGBT people have with our families and loved ones ... can lead to real change in hearts and minds.”
Monday, there was talk that the Cheney feud was nothing more than a Cheney family long con, a disingenuous way of reminding Wyoming social conservatives that Liz Cheney, whose is faltering in her race against incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, is one of them.
That’s beyond cynical. And it’s also belied by an exchange that occurred Sunday on Mary Cheney’s Facebook page.
“Sorry, Mary,” wrote a commenter named Gina Bluher Morrison. “I’m with Liz on this one. Can’t you all just accept Liz’s position and remain lovingly tolerant? She has her opinion, you have yours.”
Mary replied, “Gina—this isn’t a disagreement over grazing fees or what to do about Iran. There isn’t a lot of gray here. Either you think all families should be treated equally or you don’t. Liz’s position is to treat my family as second-class citizens. That’s not a position I can be ‘lovingly tolerant’ towards.”
Maybe one day, after Wyoming voters spurn her and she doesn’t have to worry about her immediate political future, Liz Cheney will truly embrace the position she advanced in 2009, when, echoing the words of her father, she told MSNBC: “My family has been very clear about this: We think freedom means freedom for everybody.”
And then maybe she will understand, as her sister has said, that she is on the wrong side of history.