In an interview with the Huffington Post on Wednesday night, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman -- who announced earlier Wednesday that he is gay and intends to join the fight for marriage equality in California -- said he wishes he had come out while he was the face of a historically anti-gay Republican Party platform.
Mehlman acknowledged regret that he remained closeted when he led the RNC between 2005 and 2007 -- a time when, as The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder noted, it was "stepping up its anti-gay activities."
"The reason I wish that I had been in a different place then, as I am now, is I know the personal benefit of being comfortable with, and at peace with, an important part of your life," Mehlman said. "Until you get there, it's much harder. I'm very glad to be there."
The former chairman argued that he tried hard to "expand the party and build the party," but said he wished he had done more for gay rights. Still, he said, "[You] can't look back, you've got to look forward."
In the interview, Mehlman was reluctant to address current political subjects, declining to comment on President Obama's progress on LGBT issues and the conservative movement's often-offensive rhetoric toward gay men and women. He did, however, say that there is "absolutely" a place for LGBT individuals in the GOP.
"I think the Republican Party is a diverse party with lots of different views, and I think it's a mistake to presume that people who disagree with what I think is the right answer -- which is freedom to marry -- are inherently motivated by divisive instincts," Mehlman said, adding that he thinks conservatives are focusing less on social issues like opposition to LGBT equality and "much more about the size and scope of the government -- spending, deficits, and taxes."
Many high-profile LGBT activists have already embraced Mehlman since his announcement earlier Wednesday. "We hope the fact that Ken Mehlman has reached this level of honesty will now encourage other political leaders to reject divisive anti-gay campaign tactics which, as Mr. Mehlman now admits, are purely cynical attempts to manipulate the American public," Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund President and CEO Chuck Wolfe said in a public statement. Openly gay Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf told the Huffington Post that it was "great for the community to get new converts" because "until we get 51 percent of the American public supporting us on these issues, it's really important that we welcome people who want to come help us."
Center for American Progress Senior Vice President Winnie Stachelberg, who is a former Human Rights Campaign executive and longtime friend of Mehlman's, said, "I'm sure there will be plenty of people who will be angry that he came out when he did and after the things that he did, and he probably regrets that more than most people, but I think that having him as part of the team moving forward will only help all of us in this fight."
The impetus for Mehlman's coming-out was a Sept. 22 fundraiser for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is fighting for marriage equality in California. Mehlman will co-chair the event with Elmendorf and high-profile Republicans including Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, and Nicolle Wallace, who advised both McCain and President George W. Bush.