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Jonathan Miller

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I'm a Bible Belt Pol Coming Out for Marriage Equality -- Will Obama Join Me?

Posted: 05/16/11 10:55 AM ET

Yep, I'm for gay marriage.

I've lived a lie for most of my adult life. As a statewide elected official in Kentucky -- an inner notch of the Bible Belt -- I understood that coming out of the closet for gay marriage was tantamount to political suicide: an overwhelming majority of my constituents opposed it.

But now as a recovering politician, I feel both liberated and morally compelled to holler from the cyber-rooftops: I'm proud as hell, and I'm not going to fake it any more!

Growing up in Kentucky, gay marriage was never a topic of discussion.

But late nights of philosophical experimentation in college helped me discover that I'd been for marriage equality all my life. With a father who'd marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and a mother who'd been a statewide force for women's rights, the notion that we were all created equal was absurdly obvious. As a Jew growing up in the South, I knew what it was like to feel discriminated, to be other. And that same faith taught me to "love your neighbor as yourself" and to "judge not, lest you be judged," making marriage equality a natural extension of my core beliefs.

I soon came out to my parents, close friends and ultimately, my future wife. (She was for gay marriage, too, thank God!)

For the first decade of our marriage, living on the East Coast, we could be open about our beliefs. But then we decided to move back home and in 1998, I even made the youthful indiscretion of running for Congress.

There was simply no other option: I had to shove my gay marriage views into a back corner of my closet. My consultants advised that any deviation or hesitation would immediately make me unelectable. Even my savvy gay friends gave me a pass: they understood that compromising on this issue was the only route toward the greater good. They'd rather have someone who sympathized with them and voted the way they liked 90% of time, instead of one that opposed them more often than not.

And while I didn't win that congressional bid (ironically, I lost the primary to a then- closeted, now openly-gay man, Judge Ernesto Scorsone), I soon won two terms as state treasurer, capturing large majorities in rural areas where my secret views would have been anathema.

Many of my politician-allies quietly assumed that I was for gay marriage (as I did of them). So did my rivals, some of whom began to gossip about my political lifestyle.

But I went out of my way to avoid the topic. When asked, I would parse my answers like a Clintonian deposition.

In 2004, when state voters by a margin of 3 to 1 passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage -- and anything that looked like it (presumably civil unions) -- I was both horrified by the policy and relieved by the personal political implication: when asked in the future, I could say that the electorate had spoken; that my individual point of view no longer mattered.

But it was a recent moment that revealed my position was no longer tenable. My 14-year- old daughter, Abigail, came home from a Young Democrats meeting flustered: she'd heard that her political hero, President Obama, was against gay marriage. How could we have supported someone with such an abhorrent position on such a critical civil rights issue?

My stammering revealed that we hadn't had the "talk" yet. Lisa and I had shared our equality views with both our daughters, and we were thrilled when they adopted these values as their own. One of our proudest moments was learning that our older daughter, Emily, had publicly defended a gay teenage friend who was being bullied. So how could I reconcile my public timidity with my private passion?

I knew it was time to come out.

Some will castigate me for waiting until it was too late to make any difference. I plead guilty.

But while such a gesture might have been noble and potentially educational, I determined that, on balance, it wasn't worth political hari-kari. There were too many battles on too many other fronts that I wanted to fight. Gay marriage is important, but so are poverty reduction, educational opportunity, environmental protection and so on. I'd be giving up on all of the latter to simply make a statement on the former.

Others will declare that my pronouncement signifies the demise of my own political future. They understand that there's no way the same electorate that gave Rand Paul a landslide victory would support a marriage equality advocate.

They're probably right -- in the short term. I deeply respect those Kentuckians who've delved deeply into their own religious or moral beliefs and reached a different conclusion on marriage equality. But I humbly and strongly disagree. And I feel compelled to fess up.

For I believe that my admission today can do some good.

First, it can help educate my daughters -- as well as my friends and readers -- about the complex, nuanced decision-making process of most well-meaning politicians. In a political system that forces candidates to the extremes, and with a media culture that portrays issues in black and white, there are a significant number of pols who struggle every day to accommodate their personal values with political realities.

Second, I hope it gives some small measure of comfort to marriage equality advocates to know that there are politicians like me -- even in conservative states -- who support gay marriage and will come forward when it no longer will disqualify them from winning office.

Time is clearly on equality's side: while recent polls show that somewhere between a small plurality and a tiny majority of Americans support gay marriage, younger Americans overwhelmingly are in favor. Last November, my hometown, Lexington -- a light blue oasis in a deeply red commonwealth -- elected an openly gay mayor, Jim Gray. And just a few months ago, a statewide poll revealed an overwhelming number of Kentuckians support anti-discrimination protections for gays. Neither would have been the case in my childhood, probably not even a decade ago.

Finally, I pray that that my endorsement of gay marriage will encourage more people -- politicians and average citizens -- to make the same admission. We are close to a tipping point, when an anti-gay marriage stance could be seen as a political liability. Today's politicians must understand that only a few decades from now, gay marriage opponents might be viewed the same way we today view civil rights opponents from the 50s and 60s, many of whom secretly supported race equality but were afraid of the backlash.

Harvey Milk, perhaps history's most influential gay rights advocate, was right: when more gays and lesbians came out of the closet -- and the rest of us began to realize that friends and even loved ones were gay -- the stigma wore off, and it became politically and personally unacceptable to preach gay hatred. Similarly, when more people discover that those they respect support gay marriage, it will help lead us on a path to full equality. Unlike Lady Gaga, we're not "born this way"-- in favor or opposed to gay marriage. Our positions can be transformed by the wisdom and examples of others.

So please join me today. Speak out on marriage equality; let your friends know where you stand. Perhaps then, they will change their minds, or even feel liberated to come out of hiding and stand with us.

Indeed, there's one politician whom I'm confident supports marriage equality, but has been afraid to admit it. I suspect he's waiting for the right opportunity to announce it, when the electoral benefits outweigh the political downside.

Mr. President, the time is now. Yes, you can... trigger the tipping point. Exercising bold leadership -- instead of waiting to follow the generational tide -- might be your most enduring legacy.

I know my daughters would be proud. And I bet yours would feel the same way too.

 

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