A GOP voice for gay marriage

A GOP voice for gay marriage

As a GOP congressional aide in the late 1990s, Kathryn Lehman helped write the Defense of Marriage Act, a Clinton-era law denying legal benefits to wedded same-sex couples.

A decade later, after divorcing her husband and beginning a new relationship with a woman, Lehman began lobbying with the group Freedom to Marry and helped strike down the law.

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It’s a story that’s familiar to gay marriage supporters, particularly conservatives, across Washington — one that Lehman, in a recent interview with The Hill, said she gets tired of telling. But it’s a powerful story that, in some ways, resembles the fast-changing movement for same-sex marriage nationwide.

That campaign came to an abrupt end on June 26 in the Supreme Court, becoming one of the shortest-lived and most successful social movements in recent history.

In just 11 years, gay marriage went from being legal in one state to being legal in 50. Back in 2004, just one-quarter of people said they supported gay marriage. Now, that figure is nearly 70 percent.

When Lehman first began lobbying for the issue in 2011, she remembers it was still controversial. Now, because more gay men and women are “living their lives authentically,” she said the politics are shifting — even among conservatives.

“A lot of people began to see, ‘Oh I have known so-and-so for years, and I’ve always liked them, and they were smart and funny and, oh they’re gay oh, and huh ok, I guess that’s OK,’ ” said Lehman, who works with Freedom to Marry in her role as a partner at Holland & Knight.

“When we first started, there were some Republicans who were strong LGBT supporters but were very worried about saying anything about marriage,” Lehman said. “It’s different now. The world is changing, I think, for the better.”

With a legal background in religious freedom, Lehman does not come across as an activist.

As she describes the movement’s progress, she rattles off a list of states where there have been referendums, in Maine and Oregon, and victories in the legislature, in New York and Delaware. She cites legal codes and legislative language that she admits is “not terribly interesting.”

There are no rainbow flags or banners in her office, and when the decision came down, she wasn’t standing outside the court. When she starts to criticize those who disagree with her, she holds back.

But for three years, Lehman has worked with a man considered the architect of the same-sex marriage movement: Evan Wolfson.

Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry, has spent 31 years challenging state bans on gay marriage with a strategy that Lehman describes as an effort to “change hearts and minds.”

A big part of that involved making room for Republicans in the growing movement, even when they disagreed with its more liberal members on virtually everything else, Wolfson said.

“It takes some discipline, it takes some swallowing, it takes some willingness to be open,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to do that. We’ve seen that the room we made for others to step in has been very effective because there’s no one person, no one voice, no one organization that can reach everyone.”

Since 2011, Lehman has lent a conservative voice to that strategy — a role she jokingly described as the group’s “resident right-wing, senior Republican wacko.”

Tyler Deaton, a senior adviser for the conservative LGBT rights group American Unity Fund, said Lehman’s openness about her own journey has helped advance their cause.

“That story on its own is one glimpse of hundreds of thousands of similar stories around the country as gay Americans came out of the closet, including in conservative circles,” he said. “It’s changed hearts and minds.”

Sending lobbyists into Republican offices is crucial to building the movement’s momentum, Lehman said, even if she’s not winning people over.

“A lot of these offices, they’re not going to change their mind, we’re not going to get them, but no one’s talking to them,” she said. “I knew the mainstream gay rights groups weren’t talking to them. So I just wanted to go in and answer questions and have a conversation.”

Sometimes, she said she was surprised by how little some of the Republican lawmakers and staffers knew about the legal benefits of marriage that same-sex couples have missed out on.

Other times, she said she was taken aback by conservatives who accepted same-sex marriage easily, including Bush-era Solicitor General Ted Olson — an unlikely champion who has helped convince Lehman that conservatives could unite around the issue.

In her first few months of lobbying on Capitol Hill, Lehman remembers standing in the office of a “very conservative senator.” She started describing gay marriage as a civil rights issue when a young staffer stepped in to correct her.

“ ‘At a certain age, it’s not that young people don’t see it as a civil rights issue, they just don’t get why it’s an issue. They just don’t get what the big deal is,’ ” she remembers the staffer telling her.

As decision day approached, Lehman said she was still concerned about the backlash resulting from some within her party.

While the same-sex marriage campaign had been gaining momentum in dozens of states, she said there were still strongholds of opposition to LGBT couples.

“This almost happened too quickly,” she said. “Some people, they were in this illusion that it wasn’t going to happen.”

When Freedom to Marry disbands on July 31, Lehman said she hopes that the LGBT equality groups that fill the void will keep making an effort to include conservative voices to balance the "traditional gay marriage groups" that lean far more Democratic.

“It’s been pretty partisan, but the voices within the Republican Party who are supportive of the freedom to marry and supportive of gay people generally are becoming more robust,” she said.

The political momentum that's been seen in both parties has taken place only within the last several years.

Same-sex marriage was not added to the Democratic Party’s platform until 2012. No presidential candidate has openly supported same-sex marriage and won. Some of the top Democrats in national politics — including Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBooker dismisses early surveys: 'If you're polling ahead right now, you should worry' Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy Mattis dodges toughest question MORE, Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's 12:30 Report: NY Times story sparks new firestorm over Kavanaugh Top Sanders adviser: 'He is a little bit angry' Working Families Party endorses Warren after backing Sanders in 2016 MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump's economic approval takes hit in battleground states: poll This is how Democrats will ensure Trump's re-election The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico MORE — have only embraced the issue in the last few years.

Only six openly gay members of Congress have won elections — and no Republicans.

Chrys Kefalas, an openly gay Republican running for Maryland’s open Senate seat, has been one of the early advocates for same-sex marriage within his party. He first announced his stance as a closeted conservative in 2008, and remembers only one other Republican leader in his state willing to do the same.

“There were few of us who were willing to make the case and take on our party,” Kefalas said.

Two years later, he came out and this spring, he decided to launch a bid to become the first openly gay Republican in Congress. 

When the ruling came down last week, Kefalas said he immediately thought about how much the movement – and his own life – had changed since he first embraced the cause.

“2008 was a very lonely place — that was very much in my mind,” he said. “How quickly we’ve moved, how much has changed.”

Lehman said as she first heard the decision, she was overwhelmed by support from her fellow conservatives.

“What made me happy was seeing all my Republican friends who were — it still, it chokes me up for some reason, some of whom I would have never thought would be supportive,” she said, pausing to wipe her eyes. “But they were supportive, and that meant a lot to me.”

“You feel like somebody’s fighting for you when they don’t really have to,” she said.