The recent hiring of Richard Grenell, Mitt Romney's openly gay foreign-policy spokesman, represents a breakthrough in the world of Republican presidential campaigns.
Grenell isn't the first "out" gay person to serve as a high-level staffer to a GOP nominee, but as far as I can tell, he is the first such press spokesman—the first to serve as the public face of the all-but-certain Republican nominee—and on the historically sensitive issue of national security, no less. As an openly gay Republican in presidential politics, Grenell joins a small fraternity of out GOP staffers, instantly becoming the highest-profile of the band. His rise signals a remarkable new openness in a party often castigated for its social conservatism; in addition to being out, Grenell has waged some public battles for gay rights that contradict his new boss's own positions.
While Republican presidential campaigns have had staffers who were known to be gay before, these staffers, like the scores of gay GOPers working on Capitol Hill, have generally sought to avoid public notice, or even worked to stay hush-hush in the face of widespread social speculation about any single man of a certain age who is powerful but neither married nor a ladies' man. Many—like Ken Mehlman, Bush's 2004 campaign manager and from 2005 to 2007 the chairman of the Republican National Committee—didn't come out until they were safely out of politics. (Mehlman came out in an interview with The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder in 2010, confirming rumors that had been circulating in the city for years.)
Grenell, a former United Nations mission spokesman in the George W. Bush administration, has taken a different route. He has been publicly, outspokenly gay for years. He waged a public battle with the State Department to add his longtime partner to a diplomatic registry in 2008, only to be told it would violate the Defense of Marriage Act. He's also on the record as a supporter of gay marriage, something Romney opposes.
"He's certainly not the first gay person to have worked in a Republican campaign or administration, but they've often kept it quieter," said gay activist and journalist Michelangelo Signorile. "This is somebody who actually has opinions on gay issues, versus somebody who just happens to be gay."
As Grenell told the gay-issues magazine The Advocate of his unsuccessful attempt to get his partner listed in the U.N.'s "Blue Book" of diplomatic personnel and their spouses: "Some people are going to yell at me, because it's been a quiet fight. I think a lot of people's style is to do a quiet fight." Not, by implication, his.
That Grenell's public homosexuality and advocacy on gay issues appear to have been no impediment to his hiring as a high-level campaign staffer seems a clear sign of how times have changed in conservative American politics since Mehlman's day.
There have been known gay staffers in Republican presidential administrations since at least 1991, when Signorile outed Pete Williams, a spokesman for then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's Pentagon. But Williams didn't come out voluntarily. And there's a difference between serving in an administration and serving on a campaign, where partisan combat is the name of the game and the support of family-values groups can be critical.
In campaigns, the precedents for Grenell are few if any. The gay Republican presidential campaign staffers of the past largely worked in capacities other than press spokesperson—a position of unique prominence for the way it puts a staffer's name in the paper and face on television, serving as a representative and stand-in for the candidate. Others worked only for primary campaigns, not the nominee, or weren't as outspoken as Grenell has been.
I was told about a gay top staffer to Bob Dole's 1996 campaign, but a former aide told me the person in question was only rumored to be gay, and never publicly confirmed it. Mary Cheney, Dick Cheney's openly gay daughter, worked on his vice presidential campaign in 2004. Trevor Potter, a campaign-finance lawyer and former FEC chairman who served as John McCain's general counsel in 2008, is openly gay and has served on the board of the Human Rights Campaign; he also held top legal posts in the 1988 campaign of George H.W. Bush and McCain's 2000 campaign. McCain also had a gay chief of staff in his Senate office, Mark Buse, but he seems to be a typical example of that classic Hill phenomenon -- a man who is out to his friends and colleagues, but not the wider world. Revelations that he was gay were treated as an "outing" during the 2008 campaign.