WASHINGTON -- It has been 16 years since Kathryn Lehman was a Republican Hill staffer working on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
Now Lehman's back on Capitol Hill, in a new capacity: as a lesbian GOP lobbyist trying to repeal the law she helped write.
Things were pretty different in Lehman's world in 1996. She was engaged to a man. Same-sex marriage wasn't legal anywhere. And the public perception of what it meant to be gay wasn't anything like it is now, she says.
"There was nobody married, it wasn’t allowed anywhere," Lehman recalls. "The view of gay people ... it wasn't Ellen [DeGeneres]. It wasn't Neil Patrick Harris. It was kinky sex and women riding around on motorcycles without shirts on. That was sort of the view that the community projected as well."
"It wasn't people that you know, people that you work with, people just like everybody else."
Lehman, now 52, was chief counsel for the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution. She says she and her colleagues working on DOMA didn't think it would do much harm. They had two goals in mind: to prevent the federal government from recognizing any marriage between gay couples, and to ensure that states didn't have to recognize gay couples married in other states.
As it turns out, DOMA has hurt gay and lesbian couples in a multitude of ways. It denies medical leave pay for about 43,000 employees who leave to care for a same-sex partner, according to the think tank The Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law. It denies health care benefits and work/injury compensation for more than 30,000 same-sex spouses of federal employees. It denies about 68,000 veterans with same-sex partners the ability to share their pension and educational benefits. It denies equal treatment in inheritance tax, in filing joint income tax returns, in spousal protections for long-term care under Medicaid and in the process of acquiring a green card for an estimated 26,000 bi-national couples.
None of these things seemed particularly controversial to Lehman since, she says, nobody was even talking about gay marriage as a real possibility 16 years ago. Still, something Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said during one of the committee hearings on DOMA stuck with her. At the time, Frank was the only openly gay member of Congress.
"I remember Barney Frank saying at the time, 'I don't understand how me being married to my partner hurts your ability to be married,'" she recalls. "And I remember thinking, 'Yeah, I don't either.'"
In the years to come, the arc of Lehman’s career and personal journey would come to mirror how, in many ways, the country itself is evolving in its understanding of gay and lesbian individuals and couples.
Lehman, who says she was “totally in love” with her fiancé despite struggling with the possibility that she might be a lesbian, got married after DOMA passed. She says she was "happily married" until 2001, at which point her husband abruptly wanted out. Lehman says she was devastated, but put herself in therapy and made a commitment to herself to pick up the pieces and start anew.
"I think I'd always been afraid to go to therapy because I thought they were going to say, 'You're gay,' and I didn't really want to hear it," she says. It took her a year just to tell her therapist that she'd once been with a woman. As time went on, she came to terms with her sexuality and eventually embraced it.
In the meantime, Lehman's career was taking off. In 1997, one year after DOMA's passage and eight years after starting her work on the House Judiciary Committee, she became special assistant to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). From there she became policy director to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and then director of coalitions and outreach for House Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.). In 2003, she took over the top post under House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), helping to craft legislative and floor strategies for House Republicans.
At the Republican National Convention in 2004, Lehman ran into someone she had known for years, Julie Conway, a political fundraiser. They had been friends in the past, but Lehman says something shifted for her when she saw Conway this time, and they soon began dating -- and are still partners today. President George W. Bush was also at the convention, of course, and Lehman recalls that as sparks were flying for her, Bush was giving a speech about protecting traditional marriage. At the time, she says, she only "sort of" laughed at the irony.
Lehman, who was and still is staunchly conservative, decided after several months to start telling her peers about her relationship with Conway. Many worked for powerful Republican leaders in Congress. The first friend she told was in Hastert's office; the next was in House Majority Whip Roy Blunt's office. Both were supportive of her relationship. She went on to tell more friends, and none had a negative reaction. In fact, many were more concerned about something else besides her sexual orientation.
"They were like, 'Well, tell us about Julie. Is she a Republican?' I'm like, 'Yes.' And they were like, 'Oh, okay,'" she says. "Honestly, that was it."
Her family was not as supportive. She says the news wasn’t “particularly easy” on her father, a high school choir director in Pittsburgh, Pa., where Lehman grew up. But he was still “happy that I found someone that I was happy with,” she says, and he was proud of her career success. As for Lehman’s mother, Lehman says only that the two are not close. “She knows about Julie and I,” Lehman says. "She always says to say hello to Julie.”
Lehman, who graduated from Oral Roberts University in 1982 and earned her law degree from Catholic University, left Capitol Hill in 2005 to join the law firm Holland & Knight, where she works now. She has about half a dozen clients and lobbies House Republicans on policy issues ranging from energy to health care to appropriations.
Lehman’s turning point on DOMA came when she read a 2009 legal brief by Ted Olson, the Republican attorney who surprised many by helping to bring a lawsuit against Proposition 8, California's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In his brief, Olson, who was formerly President George W. Bush's solicitor general, mapped out various groups of people who are allowed to get married -- people in prison, convicted rapists -- while gay and lesbian couples cannot.
A lot of things in the U.S. that had been done one way "were crap and we got rid of them," Lehman says, thinking back to Olson's brief. "Traditionally, women didn't work outside the home. Traditionally, in the South, black people sat in the back of the bus. It's all part of things traditionally that have changed for the better."
Lehman says she began to think about what had motivated GOP leaders to pass DOMA in the first place. She says she realized "the great threat" they were all worried about never materialized. Asked what they were so afraid would happen if gay people got married, she says she wasn't really sure.
"Maybe we thought it was going to be more married people in ass-less chaps?" she says.