Bachmann’s Lesbian Sister Speaks Out

In a situation that has become increasingly common (see Newt and Candace Gingrich), Michele Bachmann’s stepsister, Helen LaFave, who is lesbian, is speaking out publicly against her sibling’s virulent bigotry. Frank Bruni features her in his New York Times column.

As the years passed they saw much less of each other, but when their paths crossed, at large family gatherings, there were always hugs. Helen was at Michele’s wedding to Marcus Bachmann and got to know him. And Michele got to know Nia, the woman who has been Helen’s partner for almost 25 years.

Helen never had a conversation about her sexual orientation with Michele and knew that Michele’s evangelical Christianity was deeply felt. Still she couldn’t believe it when, about a decade ago, Michele began to use her position as a state senator in Minnesota to call out gays and lesbians as sick and evil and to push for an amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would prohibit same-sex marriage: precisely the kind of amendment that Minnesotans will vote on in a referendum on Election Day.

“It felt so divorced from having known me, from having known somebody who’s gay,” said Helen, a soft-spoken woman with a gentle air. “I was just stunned.”

And while she never doubted that Michele was being true to her private convictions, she couldn’t comprehend Michele’s need to make those convictions so public, to put them in the foreground of her political career, and to drive a wedge into their family.

She told Michele as much, in a letter dated Nov. 23, 2003. She sent copies to her four siblings, her father and one of Michele’s brothers, and kept one herself. In the letter she described her “hurt and disappointment that my stepsister is leading this charge.”

“You’ve taken aim at me,” Helen wrote to Michele. Referring to Nia, she added: “You’ve taken aim at my family.”

Michele, she said, never acknowledged the letter in any way.

Of course she hasn’t. If she acknowledges it, she comes face to face with the fact that her bigotry has real victims. And once she allows herself to see gay people as actual people instead of abstractions, it will be harder to exploit other people’s bigotry for political success.

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  • Michael Heath

    Conservative Christianity will have an increasingly difficult time avoiding public condemnation from their bigotry towards GBLTs and their families, in spite of their success discriminating against females where the public has long given them a pass. A pass they appear to correctly realize they won’t get when it comes to their bigotry towards GBLTs and their families.

  • My mother’s sister is a lesbian. This didn’t make my mother a gay rights supporter from a young age (though she is one now), but I’m pretty sure it it rendered it impossible for her to be a vocal anti-gay bigot like Bachmann. I have no sympathy for parents who reject their gay children, but I comprehend why they do so. I do not get how someone could grow up with a gay sibling and still turn out to be not just homophobic, but a politician who seeks to actively oppress gays.

  • I do not get how someone could grow up with a gay sibling and still turn out to be not just homophobic, but a politician who seeks to actively oppress gays.

    It’s easier when you can afford to hire your own security, and/or have friends in law-enforcement who know to keep your kinfolk away from the next pogrom. That’s how Dick Cheney gets away with it, and I’m sure Michelle Bachmann has similar safeguards for her kin.

  • slc1

    Bachmann’s attitude shouldn’t surprise anyone. Remember raving lunatic Alan Keyes who ran against Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race? When he found out that his daughter was a lesbian, he kicked her out of the house and told her never to darken his door again.

  • eric

    I do not get how someone could grow up with a gay sibling and still turn out to be not just homophobic, but a politician who seeks to actively oppress gays

    Bee got it right; you are ignoring the classist dimension to their arguments. Remember how Santorum got his wife an abortion while opposing it? He’s probably not a hypocrite in his own mind; he thinks abortion should be illegal…for the plebes. Not for him and his folk. His class is smart, educated, and sophisticated enough to exercise choice. Its all those other people who need to be told what to do.

    The same thing may be going on here. Bachmann probably sincerely opposes gay rights as destructive to families – but the subtext is, other families, not hers. In her mind is the classist double standard: her family can handle a gay sister being married to her partner; laws and regulations are needed because all you common people can’t.

    My apologies if this is a pseudo-double post. A somewhat earlier draft seemed to have gotten lost in transit.

  • If Missy was a Talibanman she would be sooooooooooooo into “honor killings” which, like charity, begin at home.

  • Paul W., OM

    And once she allows herself to see gay people as actual people instead of abstractions, it will be harder to exploit other people’s bigotry for political success.

    Don’t count on it.

    I would not be much surprised if Bachman is one of those people who can face the targets of their bigotry and feel entirely justified in sticking to their principles—e.g., personally denying her stepsister the right to have a woman lover, if she could, because gay sex is wrong. She might feel entirely justified doing that, and good about herself for doing it, the way she’d feel good about denying a junkie heroin.

    If she is one of those people, it may be that she doesn’t bring the matter to a head only because she can’t control the situation and get the right outcome. She likely thinks of her stepsister as like a rebellious child who needs a firm hand—she’s rebelling against God the Father after all—but knows that she doesn’t have the power to play the grown-up and control her weak/misguided/warped/immature stepsister.

    I suspect that she’d be proud of herself for doing it, if she could do it, but there’s no point in making big conflict in the family, if she’s not going to win that conflict.

    Denying people you know rights is kind of like shooting your own dog. A lot of people can do it.

    I could. I could shoot my own dog, that is, if I thought it was the right thing to do, because the remainder of of his life would mostly suck, or he was a menace to society. I could be nice and friendly and sincerely loving with him right up to the moment I pulled the trigger and he was meat. It would suck hugely to be in that situation, but I wouldn’t feel bad about myself afterward. I’d even be kinda proud of myself for not being too weak to do it, and not keeping a beloved dog around who was suffering, or making others suffer too much.

    Heck, I could even kill myself, for similar reasons, under some analogous circumstances. Killing my beloved dog would really suck, but wouldn’t be deeply problematic for me. (And really, I wouldn’t feel terribly bad or squeamish about doing it myself, as opposed to handing the dog to a vet for a lethal injection. If somebody’s gotta do it, it might as well be me.) I have a pretty strong utilitarian streak, and I’m pretty hardcore about it.

    I’m sure there’s a substantial fraction of orthodox Christians who are just as hardcore about even their own family members and friends as I am about my dog, because they have a strong moral streak, too, of either a utilitarian or fundamentally authoritarian sort.

    Some of these homophobic Christians really think that eternal souls and damnation or salvation are at stake, and they must try to save souls even at great cost in this life, if there’s even a chance of getting somebody into heaven. It’s the utilitarian thing to do, even on a per-soul basis—even if 99 percent of gays suffer in this life from being denied what they want, and end up in Hell anyway, it’s worth it if you can keep 1 percent out of Hell forever.

    And even if you can’t save anybody who’s already given in to Teh Ghey, but you can save just 1 percent of people they’re role models for, it’s well worth it, and you must do it, and later you can feel good about having done it.

    And then there are people who have a strong authoritarian moral streak, and think that such utilitarian concerns are not decisive—you must do what God says, even if you know it “doesn’t work” in a utilitarian sense, i.e., tends to make people unhappy. If God wants you to make those people unhappy, it’s your job to do it, and you can feel good about getting that necessary job done.

    They really believe this crazy shit, and beliefs have consequences.

    Think about early medieval Christianity and the patently obviously huge amount of suffering it inflicted—e.g., by prioritizing building disastrously expensive cathedrals over feeding and housing poor people, or people simply inflicting suffering on themselves to mortify their flesh, and intentionally suffer in this life, but save their eternal souls. People saw the suffering, up close and personal, affecting people they knew, their families, and themselves, and they kept believing and doing that shit, for centuries.

    (I don’t want to misrepresent the Medieval period—it wasn’t as awful as all that, everywhere, all the time. But that sort of gratuitous infliction of suffering was pretty common in various places at various times, for quite extended periods—plenty to prove the point that seeing massive suffering up close and personal often doesn’t keep people from inflicting it on people they know and love, or even themselves.)

    For some people, believing that scary shit really works like a charm, and makes them comfortable and sincerely proud of doing patently appalling things—even to people they know and love, and are nice to by default, if they don’t think they can exercise control. Give them enough power, and things change a lot.

    In cases like Bachmann’s, I can imagine that she doesn’t rock the boat too much within the family partly because she doesn’t want to make any scenes or have any dramatic fallings-out that would be a political liability. Her main chance of doing God’s Work is in politics, and she may avoid conflict with family members in much the same way that a philandering, partying politician may project an image of happy domestic fidelity.

    For Bachmann, there’s just no percentage in fighting with family members over their lifestyles. She has bigger fish to fry, liking fucking everybody over. That may not be the right explanation of her inconsistent behavior, but it’s a sufficient one.

    I do think Ed’s right about most Christians these days, partly because Christian beliefs have evolved and eroded so much—when they get to know gay folks, and try to reconcile their conflicting ideas and values, Christian intolerance has to give way to being a decent human.

    But for a small percentage of Christians, it’s just not that way. They’re true believers, with a basically Medieval world view, and such conflict only makes them feel better about themselves for having “the strength to do what’s right.”

    IMO, successful fundie politicians and prominent Christianist activists are very disproportionately likely to be in that latter group. Such ruthless True Believers are a small percentage of Christians, or even of Evangelicals, but a fairly large percentage of leading Christianists. They’re especially likely not to be too squeamish for the necessary sausage-making and dog-shooting, and able to be calculating and ruthless enough to keep their eye on the bigger prize and go for it.

    Those people are not sociopaths, but do resemble sociopaths in their ability to act on their ideology in utterly ruthless, calculated ways, and to keep their feelings about individuals out of it. They may or may not actually love their individual family members, but even assuming they do, it may not make a whit of difference.

    I think we’re succeeding in changing hearts and minds, statistically speaking but there are some people like this that we’re never going to reach—millions of them. They’re not wishy-washy people we can bring around with the Power of Love; and emotional appeals won’t work, even face to face with individuals they actually love, and seeing what makes them happy or unhappy (in this life). They would unhesitatingly and remorselessly blow their beloved sister’s brains out if God said to, and forcibly separating her from her lover would not be problematic if they had the power. Of course they would do that, just like I would shoot my dog if Utility clearly “said to.”

    After we get the reachable people, further progress will depend on reaching these unreachable people’s children before it’s too late. And of course we already see that—young people are coming around faster than old people. That’s how we’re going to win in the long run, as Ed frequently says.

    (And actually, some of these “unreachable” True Believers may be reachable, but in a completely different way. “Emotional” appeals may not work, because they pride themselves on being able to put aside their personal feelings, and do the right moral calculus, but rational appeals may actually work. Some of these people really do have a commitment to truth, and don’t have an unbounded capacity for rationalization. If you undermine their belief that God exists, or that God says to oppress GLBT’s, or that they’re making a mistake in calculation, they’ll calculate a very different plan according to the same fundamental moral motivations. Of course most of those “intellectually reachable” people are very hard to reach in practice, but it can happen.)

  • I do not get how someone could grow up with a gay sibling and still turn out to be not just homophobic, but a politician who seeks to actively oppress gays.

    You see this all the time. Alan Keyes with a gay daughter. Phyllis Schlafly with a gay son. It’s almost as if the best predictor of whether a politician has a gay family member is how homophobic he or she is.

    My pet theory — probably bullshit, but at least it’s plausible — is that it goes back to homophobes being far more prone to homoerotic arousal than other straight people. If you assume that homosexuality has at least some familial connection, whether genetic, prenatal, environmental, or whatever, then a gay person is likely to have family members who are a bit more to the gay side of the gay/straight spectrum than average. And many of these people repress their “impure thoughts” by becoming raging homophobes.

    As I said, probably bullshit, but an amusing idea nonetheless.

  • adrian

    My mother kicked my gay sister out at the age of sixteen,without a backward glance.Of course,none of the rest of us kids(five in total) have spoken to my mother in 30 yrs because she is,well,an asshole.

  • Pseudonym

    Clearly familiarity breeds contempt.

  • bradleybetts

    The more I hear about Bachman, the more I hate her. I genuinely feel sorry for you guys in the ‘States. Here in the UK we have a state religion (something I’m not happy about), and yet any public announcement of sincere religiosity tends to be viewed as a sort of mild eccentricity… and yet you guys, who have a country founded on explicitly secular principals, seem to have no end to the number of bigoted Christian nutjobs just waiting to crawl out of the woodwork. How on earth do you put up with it?