Lesbian Republican Who Helped Write DOMA Now Hopes to Repeal It

In 1996, Kathryn Lehman was part of the team that helped write and pass DOMA. A longtime GOP staffer, it seemed like only one step in her career with the party. But today, although still a GOP lobbyist, she’s working to repeal DOMA — because since 1996, she’s come out of the closet.

In 1996, Lehman was engaged to a man. She wasn’t even out to herself. Based on what the public perception of gay people dictated at the time, it didn’t seem possible that she could be a lesbian. “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.” Perhaps most shockingly at all, at the time, Lehman says that DOMA didn’t even seem controversial. Since same-sex marriage didn’t feel like it was a real possibility, banning it didn’t seem like it would make any difference. Heartbreakingly, Lehman now says “she and her colleagues working on DOMA didn’t think it would do much harm.”

jo deutsch and kathryn lehmann/via the advocate

Since then, Lehman has divorced, gone through therapy, come out, and has been with her partner Julie Conway since 2004. In the rest of the country, marriage has been legalized in a healthy handful of states, gays can serve openly in the army, and even Lehman’s colleagues in the GOP didn’t really take issue with her relationship with Conway. “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.”

Much about Lehman’s story mirrors that of Ted Olson. Half of the lawyering team who’s championed the cause of equality in court by arguing against Prop 8 is a Republican, and in fact was George W. Bush’s solicitor general. But when he looked at the issue of gay marriage, he still felt like he was watching something happen that was contrary to his beliefs. And in fact, Lehman says it was reading one of his briefs from 2009 that helped her come to her decision to oppose the legislation she helped create. Now Lehman is working with Jo Deutsch, a lesbian, liberal Democrat and federal director of Freedom to Marry, to talk with Capitol Hills staffers about repealing DOMA. She and Deutsch have little in common besides their desire to remove the ban on marriage — Lehman is still an active conservative — but they’re a force united on changing the legal landscape for gay couples in the US.

When Lehman originally helped to create DOMA, the reality that it worked towards felt like a foregone conclusion. Even a gay person (even if she wasn’t sure she was one at the time) didn’t think there was any real argument to be made against it. But not even twenty years later, the situation looks radically different. Looking back, Lehman says “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.” And now, even the people who worked on DOMA but haven’t experienced a radical shift in how they identify have begun to rethink their position. In an op-ed for the LA Times, Bob Barr, another DOMA architect, argued that “DOMA is ‘neither meeting the principles of federalism it was supposed to, nor is its impact limited to federal law.'” He now supports the law’s repeal as well.

DOMA’s repeal no longer feels like an impossibility — Lehman reports that Republican lawmakers have “told her privately that they support repealing DOMA but don’t feel comfortable saying so publicly because they’re worried about getting re-elected in November.” When DOMA finally and inevitably ends, it will mean a world of difference for gay families and couples all over America. But there’s already been a world of difference made regarding the public perception of gay people and the rights we deserve as Americans, or else the current conversation over DOMA wouldn’t even be possible.  Lehman in 1996 couldn’t imagine the world we have today, and now she’s working to make sure that kids born today won’t be able to imagine a time when their queer families meant they were treated like second-class citizens. And the work we’ve done as an entire community over the last 20 years is the reason why, so when DOMA is finally gone, it will be thanks to us all.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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15 Comments

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    Fascinating. I’m sure some will take issue with the fact that Lehman’s still a cog in the wheel of a party that’s been notoriously nasty to gays, but I think she deserves serious respect for coming out and changing her stance on DOMA. More Kathryn Lehman-esque republicans = a more gay friendly republican party, perhaps?

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      It’s a well known secret that the movers and shakers within the GOP has a queer representation that far exceeds that of the general public. They are out to their family and friends. Out to the party structure. And yet since they continue to fight for the party, the party hasn’t changed. The anti-gay element within the Republican party would get up and leave if the party went pro-gay rights. Until the upper reaches of power in the GOP are willing to take a stand or quit working for the party (as the anti-gay would) there won’t be much change.

      Some day the flood wall will break, but I couldn’t tell you what will cause it or when it will happen.

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    i am not sure i understand this– she hasn’t clarified what her exact thinking was back when she worked on doma. one can only assume it was her own gay panic/internalized homophobia. or was it for her just a way of climbing the ladder in a corrupt political party (to hell with human rights, i want to become a more successful person)? it’s inexcusable, and only now that it means she’s maybe not going to have the right to marry her partner does she care?? i have no true sympathy, and i also resent her coming forward without more concrete statements of what she thought she was doing in the first place. i think she needs to take more ownership of her own personal/moral failure back in 1996, which also would implicate members of her party of course. i don’t think her (previous, misguided) belief in every crazy radical stereotype about gays justifies her participation in doma’s creation. now that her personal life has become her political life (it already was, but now that that relationship is more tangible and real to her), she could maybe make sense for us of all the republican “do as i say, not as a do” approaches to policy making. but wait, that would undermine the political party she is *still* working for… whatever… of course just getting this thing repealed is the goal here, but there seems to be no true accountability at all in this shocking reversal… even marr’s reference to “federalism”– tries to deflect attention from the fact that it was about common bigotry. probably they tried every possible way to make that sound like they were merely trying to protect the spirit of the constitution and the interests of the nation as a whole regardless of what people wanted on the state and local level. wtf.

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      I think one allowed her to do the other – look at her age, she DIDN’T have the access to lesbian representation that exists now, and like a lot of uninformed people, before and since, she thought there was no way she could be the image the mainstream was offering her. What are “crazy, radical stereotypes” in 2012 were typical fare when she was growing up. Like my mother told me, when she was a kid the idea was all lesbians were trying to make you, predatory. That was the 50’s (look at the PSA’s from the era on youtube) and given that she doesn’t look much younger than her, if at all, I can understand that it took Lehman a long time to overcome all that, and in a sense, she’s still in a state of becoming – & at least trying to bring the other national party in this country along with her. The GOP are batshit right now but it isn’t to the day to day benefit of a lot of ordinary people that they stay that way, because they’re voting against stuff you and I need, today, this week, now.

      I know many other people were able to break free of that shit earlier than Lehman, but…well, they’re not Lehman. She had to do it on her own time. At least she’s calling herself on it and trying to do differently.

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    Basically, she’s a female version of Ken Mehlman (GWB’s campaign director who came out a year ago). Hmmm, so she’s helping to repeal DOMA, but is she also working for inclusive ENDA? Is she supporting health and housing services for queer and trans youth and adults? Is she in favor of parring down our humongous military/industrial/prison complex in favor of education? What are her thoughts about racial inequality, immigration and poverty? What’s her stand on choice and Planned Parenthood? In other words, DOMA, odious as it is, is just a small piece of the poisonous pie that Repubs (and sadly, too many Democrats) have served us. Yes, I give her kudos for coming out, but she gets nothing for the nasty company she continues to keep.

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    When it comes down to basics, she supports a party that shows intolerance across the board (based on gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.). When she was marrying a man, she helped put through an anti-gay bill. When it turned out it effected her romantic life, now she is against it but stays in the same party. In other words, she is a typical conservative. Unless it effects her personally, she has no problem supporting the agenda of the GOP.

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      Indeed. Coming out against one injustice while still (implicitly) supporting all others does not make her a good person or makes her deserving of respect. Her personal struggles don’t change that.

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    As Gina is alluding to, OK, she’s out but she is not out of the Republican party. Give her a pink star for trying to repeal DOMA, but what are her positions involving other social issues?

    The trans community had a U.S. House candidate in Floria’s 20th district in 2010, Donna Milo. Running as a Republican she also opposed same sex marriage. So what do you suppose the response was among the trans community? Right, she was not very popular despite the fact she, to the best of my knowledge, was the first viable trans candidate who attempted to be elected to Washington. Oh, she garnered over 30% of the primary votes, so she had popularity around Miami.

    Kudos to Ms. Lehman for being out, but what now?

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    From someone who is not in the US.. Can someone please explain how in the world anyone can EVER be a conservative republican and be openly gay? Is it that they hate themselves and they want to take away their own rights??? are they confused??
    I just don’t understand!

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      I have no idea. For some people, their queerness isn’t really a part of their political outlook and they can somehow justify their inequality. I’ve never understood how anyone who wasn’t a white heterosexual male could consider his or herself a social conservative, much less LGBTQ-identified people who are nothing more than second-class scum to parties like the GOP (just look at their presidential candidates).

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