What makes someone a gay icon? I’m tempted to fall back on Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quotation: “I know it when I see it.”
But such instinctive judgments still rest upon criteria. Regarding gay icons, Wikipedia advises: “Qualities of a gay icon often include glamour, flamboyance, strength through adversity, and androgyny in presentation. Such icons can be of any sexual orientation or gender; if LGBT, they can be out or not. Although most gay icons have given their support to LGBT social movements, some have expressed opposition, advocating against a perceived homosexual agenda.'”
So you don’t have to be gay or pro-gay-rights to be a gay icon — which brings me to a partner I hereby dub the Judy Garland of Biglaw. She has a most interesting skeleton in her closet, which might explain her staunch opposition to gay marriage….
Say hello to the divalicious Cleta Mitchell. She’s a former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, a current partner in the D.C. office of Foley & Lardner, and one of the nation’s top political and election law experts. If you’ve seen her in person, you know that she’s sleek, stylish, opinionated, and outspoken.
Last year I praised Mitchell’s performance on a New Yorker festival panel about campaign finance reform as “fierce” and “fabulous.” She held her own against two liberal legal geniuses, Seth Waxman and Larry Lessig, during the discussion itself, then took on all comers during the Q-and-A. Even though there were five panelists, almost all the questions from the overwhelmingly left-wing audience — they’re readers of the New Yorker, who live in NYC — were directed at Mitchell. A seasoned litigatrix, Mitchell swatted them away with ease. Her display of “glamour, flamboyance, [and] strength through adversity” was truly worthy of gay icon status.
But is “gay icon” a label that Mitchell would embrace? Even though she was a Democrat back when she was in Oklahoma politics, today Mitchell involves herself in a wide range of conservative causes and represents a number of high-profile Republican and right-wing organizations. As noted in her Foley bio, her clients over the years have included the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the National Rifle Association. She also represents major Republican politicians, including Marco Rubio, Jim DeMint, Kelly Ayotte, Jim Inhofe, and Pat Toomey.
Some of Mitchell’s most controversial work involves her opposition to gay rights — or the “homosexual agenda,” as she puts it. She used to represent the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a leading anti-gay-marriage group. But that representation caused problems for Foley & Lardner, which got dinged by the Human Rights Campaign in HRC’s closely watched Corporate Equality Index, which rates various workplaces (including law firms) on how LGBT-friendly they are. After Mitchell stopped representing NOM, Foley’s score on the CEI skyrocketed.
Even if she no longer does legal work for NOM, Mitchell remains active in the fight against gay marriage. A fascinating profile of Mitchell that appeared yesterday in The Atlantic describes her as “the conservative movement’s anti-gay eminence grise” and explains how she helped oust GOProud, a pro-gay Republican group, from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), “the annual marquee event for the right.”
What led Mitchell to go from being a liberal Democrat, back in her Oklahoma days, to a conservative, anti-gay-marriage Republican? Here’s the juiciest tidbit from Jonathan Krohn’s Atlantic article:
Mitchell hasn’t spoken at any length as to why she suddenly seemed to be a champion of these issues as of late — and what brought her to the Beltway wasn’t social issues or even fiscal issues but term limits (she was made head of the Term Limits Legal Institute in 1991) and most of her work since has focused on areas other than social policy. But her stance is ironic in light of her past.
Namely, her first husband was gay.
Whoa! Seriously? Yes, seriously:
Mitchell married Duane Draper, who she met in the city of Norman in her home state of Oklahoma. In 1980, Draper moved to Massachusetts to take a teaching fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The couple divorced two years later in July 1982 on grounds of “incompatibility.”
Note how strong, sassy women — the types who become gay icons — fall for men who turn out to be gay. Perhaps the most famous example is Arianna Huffington, whose first husband, Michael Huffington, turned out to be gay (or at least bisexual).
Are women like Arianna Huffington and Cleta Mitchell attracted to our playfulness and our Wildean wit? Do they hope that compatibility in intellect and personality can make up for the lack of sexual chemistry? In college, I had a girlfriend. We’d sit on her bed until two in the morning and have wonderful… conversations about our favorite novelists.
Anyway, back to the Atlantic:
In 1988, Draper became director of the Massachusetts AIDS policy office. His interest wasn’t just academic or humanitarian — he himself contracted the disease. By the time he died of AIDS in 1991, Draper was living as an openly gay man.
Some of us are old enough to remember what it was like during the early days of the AIDS crisis. If you aren’t, or if you are but have forgotten, I recommend watching How to Survive a Plague, the Oscar-nominated documentary from last year about the AIDS epidemic and the activists who responded to it.
Duane Draper’s story ended sadly, but his ex-wife found a new life:
In 1984, Mitchell (nee Deatherage) married Dale Mitchell — son of all-star left-fielder Dale Mitchell, who was the final strikeout in Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game. As The Oklahoman noted at the time, Cleta Deatherage took her husband’s last name, and in return he switched parties from Republican to Democrat — even though she said after her retirement that she was finished with politics. But she couldn’t resist the pull of elected office, and mounted an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor in 1986.
Her subsequent transformation from Democrat to Republican calls to mind the transformative aspect of drag queen performance. And when you see Cleta Mitchell speak in public, there’s a wonderfully performative quality to her presentation. She is a camp figure.
The case for Cleta Mitchell as gay icon is buttressed by her campiness. To quote Susan Sontag’s great essay, Notes on Camp:
As a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated. The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility…. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine….
If you’ve seen Mitchell interact with her detractors, slaying them in intellectual combat, you know what I’m talking about. Even though she’s an attractive and well-dressed woman, there’s a martial, masculine quality to her self-presentation. Here’s further proof of that, from Jonathan Krohn’s piece:
As powerful as she is, Mitchell is wary of the press. When I first approached her to request an interview, she repeatedly speculated that I would write a “hit piece,” and only agreed to speak on the condition there would only be one GOProud-related question. When I asked her in an email about a blogpost linking Draper’s sexuality to the couple’s divorce, she clammed up. “I think I’m finished talking about this with you — it is a hit piece as I suspected from the start,” she said. “Swing away!”
“Hit me with your best shot, Krohn” — that’s très butch! The more I read about Cleta Mitchell, the more I adore her as a gay icon.
Is it possible for a gay icon to be so, well, anti-gay? (Or maybe one should say “anti-gay-marriage”; I don’t know Mitchell’s personal feelings about gay people.) It turns out that there’s precedent for this, at least according to Wikipedia:
While most [gay icons] have been lionized for their strength, style, compassion, or work for equal rights, an ironic icon is Anita Bryant, who worked to oppose homosexuality. During the 1970s, Bryant led a national campaign, “Save Our Children”, which conflated homosexuality and child molestation and insisted that because homosexuals cannot reproduce they must “recruit” or “convert” people to their lifestyle.
So consider Cleta Mitchell of Foley & Lardner to be, alongside Anita Bryant, one of the great ironic gay icons. Regardless of her political positions, Mitchell is a true gay icon — glamorous, fabulous, ferocious. And she is a camp figure. Even the story of how she became an anti-gay-marriage crusader is uber-campy: stung by the collapse of her first marriage, to a hometown sweetheart who turned out to be gay, she remarried and remade herself into one of the nation’s most powerful opponents of gay marriage. If Judy Garland were alive today, she could play Cleta Mitchell in the resulting Lifetime movie.
Here’s a final layer of irony to Cleta Mitchell as ironic gay icon. If the armchair psychologists are correct, Mitchell opposes gay marriage because of her own unfortunate experience of being married to a gay man. But if societal attitudes towards homosexuality in the 1970s, when she got married, were more like they are today, then maybe she would never have wound up in that ill-fated marriage in the first place. And maybe Duane Draper would be alive today — and happily married.
Meet Cleta Mitchell, the Conservative Movement’s Anti-Gay Eminence Grise [The Atlantic]
Why conservative power attorney Cleta Mitchell bashes GOProud while her firm embraces diversity [Pam’s House Blend]