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Mary Cheney Never Wanted to Be a Gay-Rights Activist

What her autobiography tells us about her feud with Liz

Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

The Bush family dynamics were often compared to Shakespeare. But the Cheneys might have just one-upped them on that front. This week, Liz said she does not support gay marriage and Mary replied with an angry Facebook post and an interview in Politico where she said “I’m not supporting Liz’s candidacy. ...By supporting, I mean not working, not contributing, and not voting for (I’m registered in Virginia not Wyoming).” Is the very public fight between Mary and Liz akin to King Lear, with two daughters feuding over the political estate of their aged father? Or are there shades of Macbeth, with its spousal prodding? One reading of Mary’s decision to go public on Facebook with her anger is that it came at the urging of her wife, Heather Poe, who added her own even more aggressive posts. Whatever the Shakespearean comparison might be, one thing is clear: Mary is tired of playing only supporting roles.

Mary came out to her family very young, after a car-crash at age 16 in the wake of a breakup from her first girlfriend, according to her 2006 book, It’s My Turn Now. They were supportive, her father particularly so. “You’re my daughter and I love you and I just want you to be happy,” he said. Her mother, Lynne, told her: “Your life will be so hard.” (A few years earlier Lynne had written a novel with a lesbian romance.) Liz, as recounted by New York’s Joe Hagan, was at least slightly troubled. In 1991, she asked family friend Dick Armitage whether he thought homosexuality was nature or nurture; he said nature, and she “seemed relieved.”

Mary’s sexuality was an issue that year because gay-rights activists were threatening to out her publicly in retaliation for her father’s support, as secretary of Defense, for the military’s ban on gay servicemen and women. In It’s My Turn Now, she proudly tells of how her father kicked a gay man out of his office who’d threatened to use Mary’s sexuality against Cheney—“The only thing threatening my dad ever accomplished was to make him angry”—and spends little time grappling with why her father didn’t support gay rights in the military. He now does; Cheney was also at the vanguard of Republican support for gay marriage. When he was mulling a presidential run in 1996, Cheney decided against it largely because it would expose so much of Mary’s personal life to the press. (Liz pushed hard for it.) When he was considering joining Bush’s ticket, Cheney asked Mary if it would be OK. She assented with some apparent reservations, including the protests of her very private wife. (Again, Liz pushed hard.)

Now It’s My Turn is, in fact, mostly hagiography for Dick, whose turn it always was—until it was Liz’s. The sisters’ relationship is portrayed as nothing but loving throughout the book. Until Liz carpetbagged her way west, the whole family lived close together in MacLean; Mary (now a mother of two) dotes on her nieces. When John Edwards brought up Mary’s sexuality in a debate, Liz and Lynne stuck out their tongues at him. The only faint evidence of any sibling rivalry whatsoever is when Mary slags on Liz’s lack of skill in the kitchen.

Both sisters attended Colorado College, their mother’s alma mater. After college, while Liz took the law-school-to-politics route, Mary worked in the private sector, first for the Colorado Rockies and then for Coors. She also worked behind the scenes in both the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, first as a “body man” for her father and then as the director of his operations. Afterwards, she worked for AOL and on a consulting venture with her father. The two are obviously quite close, and yet it’s Liz on whom Cheney has pinned the continuation of his political legacy. Lynne and Dick have already sided with their eldest, Liz, in this dispute, though they’ll have Thanksgiving dinner at Mary’s place (remember, Liz can’t cook).

Mary has always been more of a liason than an activist. At Coors (known as a staunchly Republican company), her job was gay and lesbian outreach—which involved, sometimes, going to gay bars and convincing them not to boycott Coors beer. (She’d occasionally show up at said bars in the company of a chaps-and-straps-wearing Mr. International Leather 1999; no word on whether she was in her signature pantsuits.) She did a similar kind of work on behalf of her family. Insofar as her book has a thesis, it is that being gay and being Republican is just fine—now can we stop talking about it already? She bristles at being called a lesbian by John Kerry, saying angrily (and somewhat puzzlingly) that “he had used the word 'lesbian,' instead of the more common and politically neutral term 'gay.'" Sexuality was an issue, in her telling, only when the press and the other campaign made it one. This despite the fact that Mary reportedly encouraged gay men and women to call the campaign and ask about her, so that the campaign wouldn’t be able to sweep her sexuality under the rug, as she worried they might. Mary refused to be in the audience when George W. Bush declared his support for a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, and considers quitting her work on the campaign because of the Federal Marriage Act, she writes in the book—but she still takes great pains to say that W. was still the best guy for the country, and that she supported him. The memoir is aggressively bland, an apparently deliberate choice on her part. Mary writes: “The consensus was that when an issue causes strong feelings, as gay rights does, bland is probably all right.”

What pushed Mary away from bland? There are theories floating around the Internet that this is all an elaborate Cheney family plot to help Liz, who is significantly behind her opponent. (Dan Savage, a longtime Mary-hater, tweeted “Odds that Mary is pretending to be angry to help Liz get elected? Mary's anger makes Liz's opposition look sincere, personally costly. Hm...”). But, viewed historically, Mary’s hurt looks real. When she emailed with Politico's Jason Zengerle about the feud, she wrote that she wasn't supporting her sister in any way, but still ended the exchange with “I am not saying I hope she loses to Enzi.”

Not only is it personally cruel to her, but Liz’s policy position also makes it harder for Mary to continue her outreach work on behalf of Republicans to the gay community.  The Cheneys were always an example of powerful Republicans who accepted homosexuality, whose policy positions on this issue had evolved and gotten more open-minded. And now, they’re not. Mary’s subtle sell of the GOP to the gay community just got a lot harder. Her anger could be not just principled and hurt, but frustrated at how much more difficult her case that being Republican and gay is OK has become. All she wanted was the right to continue to be bland. Suddenly, she’s an activist, whether she wanted to be one or not.