Talking to Mama T.

When Teresa Heinz Kerry invited gay delegates at the July Democratic National Convention to "call me Mama T," the crowd burst into chants of "Mama T," "Mama T."

It was the kind of spontaneous love-fest Heinz Kerry has not always received on the campaign trail, where she has been described as more cerebral than emotional and where she has been on the receiving end of right wing attacks.

It is easy to see why she connects with gays and lesbians. Even though she does not have gay children and opposes same-sex marriage, she comes across as the picture of a PFLAG mom, the kind of middle-aged straight woman who gets the warmest reception at Pride parades. If her husband is elected president, she pledges to make gay tolerance a centerpiece of her first lady duties.

For both the LGBT community and Heinz Kerry, this connection has been a welcome relief from the increasingly nasty tone of the campaign and John Kerry's occasional reluctance to tout his pro-gay credentials. Despite the fact that she was once married to late Republican Sen. John Heinz, the GOP has tried to turn the billionaire philanthropist into the second coming of Hillary Clinton, demonizing everything from her Portuguese accent to the causes supported by the Heinz family foundations she controls.

Shortly after the last presidential debate, Vice President Cheney and his wife, Lynne, criticized John Kerry for bringing up their lesbian daughter, Mary, to underscore his belief that homosexuality is not a choice. In an exclusive interview with PlanetOut's Bull's Eye as the debate raged on, Heinz Kerry reflected on the Mary Cheney flap, the twisted motives of anti-gay activists, same-sex marriage and how her idea of tolerance differs from President Bush's.

Were you caught off guard by the indignation of the Cheney family at your husband's remarks?

I'm surprised John's comments have taken on a negative theme. John was being positive and complimentary of how the Cheneys have handled, openly, the question of their daughter's lesbianism, just as John Edwards was in his debate. Probably, if John had really thought about it, he'd have mentioned no name. He'd have talked about how people of all kinds of religious persuasions, conservative and liberal, have gay children, and that it's not a choice.

So it breaks down along political lines?

This is one of the big problems. A lot of people, particularly those of the more fundamentalist view, think of homosexuality as a sex thing rather than a sexuality thing. They are really very different. A person doesn't choose their sexuality. For the other side, there's a tinge of the suggestion of sin, of the choice of misbehavior, quote-unquote, which is not the case at all.

Why not mention Mary Cheney?

If he'd been debating in the primary, he probably would have mentioned Dick's daughter.

You mean [Rep.] Dick Gephardt who has an openly lesbian daughter, Chrissy?

Right. The Democratic primary. So I don't think John meant anything but, "Look guys, it happens everywhere and to everyone," and some people deal with it well and some people don't.

It seemed to me the more newsworthy part of the debate is that the president of the United States said he didn't know whether homosexuality is a choice, despite the overwhelming evidence that – as you say – it's not.

That's that moral tinge of sex versus sexuality I was talking about. The fact that he doesn't know is part of that problem. The important thing for us is to respect science and gay people's views. John dealt very sensitively with the issue of people who have been married for a long time and realize finally who they are and what they are and actually end up being supported by the other spouse. He humanized it very well. I really think they are picking on this to divert attention from the other issues at hand.

On the other hand, I'm sure you can understand how painful the scrutiny of a campaign like this can be on a family. None of your three sons are gay. But what if one were? Wouldn't it make you especially protective of privacy?

No, not at all. As a parent, I love my children, and I hope I first gave them their roots and then their wings to fly. What a parent wants is for them to have the confidence to be who they are. I want to love all my children no matter who they are and to be proud of all of them.

A lot of parents don't feel that way.

It's something I've seen in my campaigning. So many mothers and fathers and their children are separated by a lack of understanding or guilt or embarrassment or religion. I'm reminded of a fundraiser I was doing in California sometime before the primary. A man said, "I wish you were my mother" instead of asking me a question. I knew immediately what he was saying: "My mom couldn't handle it." I felt really badly for him – and a lot of parents who don't know how to deal with the situation. We are going through one of those difficult transitions where we try to allow people to feel the love they have for their gay children even if they don't fully understand. My message is: It's not for us to judge, it's to love our kids. If you believe in God, he will do the judging afterward.

Both you and your husband have been demonized by the usual right wing suspects, from Rush Limbaugh to Matt Drudge to the Swift Boat Veterans.

I don't listen to those things, you know. Everything they say just reflects poorly on them.

LGBT people long have been subjected to smear campaigns by many of the same kinds of attack dogs, depicted as threats to God, country, family and, today, marriage. The RNC has acknowledged a mailer saying John Kerry wants to allow gay marriage and ban the Bible. Does that give you a special empathy for their plight?

Because I grew up in a dictatorship, I saw first-hand how people try to control others. They do whatever it takes to control and suppress what they don't like. In many respects, what I might represent is a kind of independence some of these people don't want to see in women. Period. Or in the spouse of a senior official and, God forbid, the president.

They just can't handle that.

It goes along with them calling me opinionated as opposed to obviously well-informed. I look at these people and remember telling my boys, "What you say is what you are. So don't say things you don't mean or that are mean." I look at these people and don't want their negative energy, so I don't let it get to me. I act like a boomerang. I just do my work.

I notice you told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this year of your critics: "They've got to kill something that's strong. What can I do? Nothing. I know who I am. My friends know who I am." That's an attitude that really resonates with the LGBT community, which has had to face down scurrilous attacks for years.

I used the word "kill?"

Yes.

Wow. What I mean is that if you are not part of their way, they don't want you to be strong. If you are strong, it will weather. And they don't want you to weather.

How does that relate to the right wing's fear and loathing of gay equality?

This is a human condition. People are afraid of changes, of things they don't understand. Some people can't handle it, so they don't think about it. Others go after it. If you believe in a tolerant America, there's a difference between a moral society and a moralistic society. There's a difference between a tolerant society and a permissive society. There's a difference between peacemaking and pacifism. But we're not allowed to have that kind of nuance.

It's all part of the same syndrome. We're not always going deep and looking at people as children of God, which we all are. Americans – at least the view is from abroad – have always been known to be tolerant people and practical, idealistic people. Are we coming to the end of idealism and tolerance? I hope not.

In his answer to the question about homosexuality and choice, the president said Americans should treat gay people with "tolerance and respect and dignity." Does he practice what he preaches? Is his idea of tolerance the same as yours?

I don't think so. I think he means we're a tolerant group. I mean it more in terms of practical acts, whether in terms of civil rights or human rights. Anyone can say they are tolerant, but you have to practice it. He can talk about compassionate conservatism but not be it. I know he's not conservative because of these deficits. Compassion? Utterly not. Talk is cheap. When I say tolerant I mean accepting, embracing, living with, making peace with, cherishing.

Is that what "Mama T" is all about? Embracing?

I get Mama T hugs everywhere. I got one yesterday in Reno.

What's that connection you seem to have to gay people about? You don't have a long history of gay rights work. You have not been described as generating great enthusiasm on the campaign trail.

I think I'm very motherly. I think gay people have had hard times, at least for a while, dealing with their moms even more than their dads. Because most kids are closer to their moms. I'm just a loving mom. I have a series of boys who my own kids call my "fourth sons." My kids used to laugh about that. And they all call me Mama T.

Are any of these friends of your sons gay?

Oh yes. One of my son Christopher's closest friends is from the South. He came out first year at college. He had wonderful parents. He is in New York. He is a talented, brilliant guy. And very, very gay. I mean, some people are gay but they are quiet, but he's not. He's one of Chris' best friends, and they lived together for a while after college. They are like brothers.

What have you learned from him and other gay people?

To be yourself. He's a little more himself than others. [laughs]. I remember one year he was visiting us over Christmas out West, and he bought himself a shocking pink coat.

Good for him.

I said, "You can't wear that coat. The cowboys are going to beat you up. Once you get to Aspen put it on, but not on the way." I met two of his friends or partners. Sometimes he introduced them as his boyfriends and sometimes as his partners. I think I know what the difference is. Through him I met a huge amount of gay men in New York who have done an awful lot to help John.

When you talk about being gays' "mom in the White House" what does that really mean? Dick Cheney has said "freedom means freedom for everyone," but it's not always clear to what extent he would really fight for that freedom.

I think if push came to shove, he probably would. I was surprised that when Alan Keyes criticized [Cheney's] daughter [as a "selfish hedonist"] that no one in the Republican Party responded. That was a vicious attack on her, while John was not attacking anybody. It takes two to tango. I think Dick Cheney or Dick Gephardt would always fight for the civil rights of their kids.

One of my old-time assistants who I've known since childhood is gay. He had a terrible time coming to terms and finally did and talked a lot to me about it while it was happening. He had a hard time particularly with his mother. He'd always say, "Who in their right mind would want to go through what I went through? I don't have a choice; it's who I am." It's as close as I've been to seeing the whole process go full circle.

I'm trying to pin you down here. So you're saying you would be kind of a goodwill ambassador between the LGBT community and the nation?

I would like to help bring about the day when no father feels ashamed of or scared for their child. If one can speak to that, it gives room for people to be themselves and loving to their kids.

Your late husband was a highly regarded moderate Republican. Is there any room left in this very conservative version of the party we see today for someone like him?

I don't see it. Most of the moderate senators have left. One or two left from the old days.

Arlen Specter?

Even Arlen has kind of changed. There is a whole culture that's gone. The party has become something else. It's become the party of my way or the highway.

Has that hurt the nation?

Yes. Within each party we used to have a range of opinions, so it was intra-party and inter-party. Now the intra-party aspect, certainly in the Republican Party, is nonexistent, which makes the inter-party also nonexistent. I remember when the parties had respect for each other and senators engaged in Socratic dialogue. That's a great loss for public policy and civility. It's very sad to see.

Your husband does not support same-sex marriage. His daughter, Vanessa, does. That must make for some great family discussions. Have you been in on them?

No, actually I have not. I didn't know that Vanessa did. Maybe it's an age thing – I don't know.

I'm assuming you support your husband's position on marriage?

I'm not supporting my husband. It's what I think.

Can you see a day when you might embrace gay marriage?

What I have said if one of my sons would say, "so and so and I are going to be whatever the word might be," I would be there with bells on my toes. Do I believe the same idea of marriage that I see is what is appropriate right now? I don't think so. I'm not there right now and I don't know if I could go there. I do believe in the sanctity of partnerships. I don't think "union" is the right word, and I don't think "marriage" is the right word.

What is the right word? Why do you get to define it?

I honor the idea of the commitment ceremony. My tradition and my culture is that marriage is between a man and a woman. Maybe younger people think about it differently. Having said that, I'd always be there for my kids and I'd want other parents to feel free to be there for theirs. The key is not what you call it but that we fight for the all the rights that a husband and wife enjoy for everyone.

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