Long before John F. Kerry said as much in Wednesday night’s presidential debate, Mary Cheney had been open about the fact that she is a lesbian. But by invoking the sexual orientation of the Vice-President’s daughter, the Democratic candidate unleashed a rhetorical tempest on issues as diverse as the morality of gay marriage, the place of family members in political discourse and the roots of human sexuality.
Anger among Bush campaign officials and supporters mounted on Thursday as Cheney called himself ‘‘a pretty angry father’’. Lynne Cheney, his wife, said Kerry was ‘‘not a good man’’ and accused him of a ‘‘cheap and tawdry political trick’’. But Kerry and his supporters responded that Cheney had been first to discuss his daughter in relation to the issue of gay marriage in August. Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, said the vehemence of Lynne Cheney’s response ‘‘indicates a degree of shame with respect to her daughter’s sexual preferences’’.
A number of gay rights activists said they thought many Republicans were betraying their discomfort with the issue. ‘‘It’s as if Kerry had said Cheney was an axe murderer or something,’’ said Cheryl Jacques, chief of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay civil rights organisation.
The controversy grew out of Kerry’s response to a question by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News. Schieffer told Kerry and Bush that he understood they both opposed gay marriage but wondered how they arrived at that position. He asked: ‘‘Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?’’ Bush responded: ‘‘I just don’t know. I do know that we have a choice to make in America, and that is to treat people with tolerance and respect and dignity.’’ He added he had proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and woman as he was concerned that activist judges were defining marriage.
Kerry said: ‘‘We’re all God’s children, Bob. And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you she’s being who she was; she’s being who she was born as. I think if you talked to anybody, it’s not choice.’’ Following this, TV commentators across the spectrum chastised him as ‘‘out of bounds’’.
Campaigning in Las Vegas on Thursday, Kerry released a statement saying of the episode: ‘‘I love my daughters. They (the Cheneys) love their daughter. I was trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with this issue.’’ Appearing on MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris Matthews, Edwards said he and Kerry had tried to put ‘‘a personal face on an issue that has been used to divide this country.’’
Before joining her father’s vice-presidential campaign in 2000, Mary Cheney was the Coors beer company’s liaison to gays and lesbians. She helped the company improve its image, getting Coors to provide financial support to a number of gay organisations. In the current campaign, the younger of the Cheneys’ two daughters has served as director of vice-presidential operations. She has been described as one of her father’s closest confidants. Still, the Denver-area resident and her longtime partner, Heather Poe, have tried to maintain a low public profile.
The dissent over Kerry’s mention of Mary Cheney obscured what ultimately might be a more provocative statement: his position that sexual orientation is a given at birth. While that contention is a matter of considerable research, the near consensus in the scientific community is that sexuality ‘‘is not a matter of voluntary choice’’, said Fred Berlin, an expert on human sexuality at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. ‘‘You don’t decide that; you discover that,’’ he said. —LAT-WP