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Gephardt raises the stakes for gay voters

The presidential candidate's daughter, a lesbian, is taking a prominent role in his campaign.

June 07, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For almost a year, Chrissy Gephardt tried to pretend she was not a lesbian.

Married to a doctor she described as "my best friend," daughter of a prominent Democratic congressman gearing up to run for president, she rationalized that she could, for the sake of family and politics, stay in a passionless marriage.

In graduate school she met a woman whom she found attractive, but she did not want to hurt her husband, she said. Maybe, she reasoned, "until death do us part" meant you just stuck it out.

Roiled by guilt and concerned about her father's political career, she began seeing a therapist. Two years ago, she woke Marc Leibole in the middle of the night to tell him their marriage was over, and why.

A month later, she told her parents.

"Most people come out to their friends first and then they come out to their family," said Gephardt. "I did it the other way around, because I thought we would keep it as a family secret, for political reasons."

Dick and Jane Gephardt told their daughter they loved her, and had no intention of hiding their affection. In the 2002 family Christmas card, Chrissy is pictured with her partner, Amy Loder, 31, along with her parents; her sister, Kate, a 26-year-old teacher; her brother, Matt, 32, a software developer; and his wife, Tricia.

Now, 30-year-old Chrissy Gephardt is about to make political history. Leaving her job as a social worker, the perky platinum blond with blue eyes and manicured nails is joining her father's campaign -- the first openly gay child of a major presidential contender to stump as an ambassador to the gay community.

Gay activists are ecstatic, hailing the event as evidence that homosexuality is now so widely accepted by voters that candidates who ignore the homosexual community do so at their own risk.

"Gay people are now part of the American family," said David Smith, of the Human Rights Campaign, a bipartisan organization that works for lesbian, gay, transsexual and transgender rights. "Chrissy helps us, because she puts a face to who we are and helps the country understand us better."

Some conservatives have derided the move by the Gephardt camp as another case of using personal issues for partisan gain, perfect for this age of confession. In an item on Chrissy Gephardt's ascension as a political figure, the conservative National Review recently asked, "Why don't we just elect Oprah and be done with it?"

Chrissy Gephardt and her father, the former Democratic majority leader and a longtime congressman from St. Louis, said in an interview in his campaign headquarters in Washington that they are not exploiting the personal for the sake of the political.

Soft-spoken with an easy laugh, she said, "I'm being who I am. I think it helps that I am out there as an openly gay child, but I would support my dad no matter what."

After her divorce in late 2001, she and Loder lived with the senior Gephardts for five months until they got an apartment of their own on Capitol Hill, which they share with a dog and two cats.

Dick Gephardt noted that he has already heard from some voters who have asked him to "straighten your daughter out."

Assessing the political impact of his daughter's disclosure, particularly among more moderate and Southern Democrats, he shrugs.

"We're trying to be honest about our family," he said. "If it hurts me politically, I don't care. My family ... always will be first and if it means I can't get elected, it means I can't get elected."

Some political strategists say Chrissy Gephardt's gay activism may be a slight political plus for her father, prompting homosexual voters to give his candidacy a second look. If so, the advantage is marginal, in part because this year's Democratic field of nine candidates is the most pro-gay of any in history.

Howard Dean signed the nation's first civil union law when he was governor of Vermont. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun were among the 14 senators who voted against the 1996 law banning gay marriages, which President Clinton signed.

All but Florida Sen. Bob Graham publicly endorse health and pension benefits for gay partners, and most support lifting the ban on gays serving in the military, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. At the Human Rights Campaign's annual fund-raiser in Atlanta earlier this year, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina endorsed adoptions by gays.

Politicians in past years, many of them Republicans, have wrestled with the conflicts raised by having a homosexual relative and a conservative constituency. Newt Gingrich's half-sister, Candace, came to Washington to lobby for gay rights in 1995, while her brother, the speaker of the House, pushed in the other direction.

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