The Log Cabin Republican
ORBISONIA, Pa. — MIKE FLECK, wholesome country boy, cruised to a second term in the State Legislature in 2008, running unopposed in both the Republican primary and the general election. He got 100 percent of the vote in a largely rural, religious, conservative district.
It was the same two years later: 100 percent. And the same again in 2012.
But for 2014, primary opponents are circling. Some supporters are fleeing. He’s in trouble.
And while nothing has changed — not his deep roots in the farmland here, not his degree from an evangelical Christian university founded by Jerry Falwell, not his fondness for hunting or his pride in the bear pelt from one of his kills — everything has. At the end of last year, he announced that his marriage of 10 years was over. And that he’s gay.
Plenty of people figured that he’d exit state politics after that. But on Monday he’ll announce his campaign for a fifth term. This time, it will almost certainly be a campaign, with rivals and an uncertain outcome, hinging on whether he can persuade his constituents that he’s the same politician they embraced before, the same man, apart from a reality owned up to, a truth embraced.
Their acceptance or rejection of that will be an unusually clear-cut referendum on attitudes about homosexuality in rural America, or at least in this verdant stretch of the heartland about 75 miles west of the state capital of Harrisburg. Fleck, 40, hasn’t changed his position on issues like gun control, of which he’s skeptical. (He owns a pistol, two rifles, one muzzleloader and 10 other firearms.) He didn’t come out of the closet in a swirl of scandal. There was no news about an intern, no talk of an affair. He just came out, because his marriage had unraveled, because the toll of staying in was too steep and because he saw an opportunity to challenge the bigotry in his community by presenting its residents with something that he certainly never saw when he was growing up here, an openly gay man who doesn’t conform to the sorts of stereotypes that are especially prevalent far away from metropolitan areas.
But his re-election bid isn’t just about what people in places like central Pennsylvania are ready for. It also poses the question of how they are supposed to change in the absence of examples like Fleck’s. If most gays and lesbians in rural areas stay silent or bolt for the city, there’s no one and nothing to push back at ingrained prejudices. “Will & Grace” and Ellen DeGeneres can do only so much.
“I love this area,” he told me. “I think it’s going to catch up. But it’s never going to catch up unless there are people like me out there. And that’s true not just of here but of the Bible Belt and a whole lot of America.”
“These are good people,” he added. “They’ve just never had to think about this.”
During several meetings with him over the past two months, I was struck by his determination to believe that and his refusal to accept that one wrinkle of his identity could suddenly change the esteem in which his community holds him, override his family’s long history in these mountains and make anyone question his place and his purpose here.
“I live in the house that was my grandfather’s,” he said, “and that was his grandfather’s.” It has grown over time, but the original part, more than 170 years old, is constructed of logs. It sits between the towns of Orbisonia and Three Springs on Fleck Road, named for his ancestors, and most of the few houses within a three-mile radius are owned by relatives. A stone’s throw away is the tiny hilltop cemetery where aunts and uncles and his father and a sister who died young are all buried, and he took me there one morning without any warning or explanation. I think he just wanted me to see and understand the hold that this patch of earth has on him, and the claim that he has to it.
“He really is truly a son of that community,” said Bob Bomersbach, a friend of Fleck’s who grew up there and now lives in New York. He’s also gay but has family in Three Springs and returns all the time. He told me that while many gay men and women from rural areas “feel as if one piece of themselves means they have to abrogate their ties to their history, their ties to their land, people like Mike and me say, ‘These things belong to us as well. This is part of our heritage.’ ”
Fleck’s parents were particularly well known in the community for their religious devotion. They left the Baptist congregation in which they’d been worshiping to form their own breakaway church, which held its services three times a week in the basement of the house where Mike and his three siblings grew up.
“There was not a night when we didn’t pray as a family or read the Bible as a family,” said Sandy Brumbaugh, Mike’s surviving sister, who lives in Three Springs and is four years older than he is. “There was no drinking, no dancing, and we believed that gays were going to hell, as well as anyone who associated with them. It was even frowned on to be around anyone drinking a glass of wine. That’s what was instilled in us.”
Their father made his living conducting the artificial insemination of dairy cows. He also farmed the acres around their house. He died at 54 when he was plowing a cornfield and the tractor overturned, crushing him.
Fleck says he was so intent on being virtuous and saving himself for marriage that he doesn’t remember having any strong sexual stirrings, but he does recall that when he was 12 and won a poster at a county fair, he asked not for the one of Farrah Fawcett but the one of Burt Reynolds. “The woman wouldn’t give it to me,” he said. “I said, ‘It’s for my mom.’ She gave me Farrah Fawcett anyway.”
His high school class had just 92 students, he said, fewer than a quarter of whom went on to college. He attended Liberty University in Virginia, studying history and youth ministry. After graduation he got a job as an executive with the Boy Scouts in central Pennsylvania. He later married a woman whom he called his best friend, and whom he says he was in love with, in a fashion. The marriage was still holding together fairly well when, in 2006, he ran for and was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives at the age of 33.
But he couldn’t summon the passion for her that he suspected he should be able to, became more and more aware of his sexual attraction to men and found himself powerless to banish it, even though he briefly tried so-called reparative therapy.
He grew increasingly depressed, even suicidal.
“I just couldn’t accept losing her, nor could I accept being gay,” he wrote to me in an e-mail, adding that he also feared “public ridicule” if he came out and the certain loss of his job.
In the summer of 2010, he said, he separated from his wife for a few months. (The couple have no children.) In the summer of 2011, he moved out for good, though both he and she kept quiet about it. And in December 2012, less than a month after his re-election to his fourth and current term, he came out in a lengthy interview with the local newspaper in Huntingdon County, where both his home and district office are.
That announcement kept him ahead of rumors. It also reflected the glimpse he’d been given of possibilities outside central Pennsylvania. He’d become romantically involved with a Manhattan physician, Warren Licht, whom he’d met in Philadelphia, and he was spending many weekends with Licht in New York City, where he mingled for the first time with many openly gay men.
Still, he braced for the worst, even installing a home security system and surveillance cameras just before the story broke.
It drew some national notice, because it made him the only openly gay Republican state legislator nationwide. (Another had just been elected in Ohio and took office the following month.)
Locally, it was a huge deal, eliciting some of the reaction he’d dreaded. In a letter to the editor of the Huntingdon County newspaper, a Baptist pastor wrote, “I know some of his family. You will not meet a nicer guy.”
But, the pastor added, “If you are thinking that homosexuality is not wrong and should be allowed and promoted, then it is my challenge to you to hear what God, the Creator and Judge of this world and everyone in it, says.”
Several local Republicans publicly indicated that they’d challenge Fleck in the primary if he ran for re-election. I bumped into one of them, Rich Irvin, the Huntingdon County treasurer, at a town-hall meeting that I recently accompanied Fleck and Licht to, and I asked him if Fleck’s coming out had created the opening for him and others.
“I know I’ve had constituents urge me to run,” he said, then added: “I have no personal issue with the fact that he’s gay.”
Republicans outnumber Democrats two-to-one in the district, which includes chunks of the state’s Amish and Mennonite populations, and they tend not to be liberal or moderate on social issues. Fleck said that a poll he did last spring showed that fully 80 percent of them are opposed to same-sex marriage, which he supports.
But he doesn’t press that issue, which isn’t likely to come up for a vote in the Republican-controlled statehouse anytime soon. He emphasizes education and jobs and stresses that his chief obligation is to champion what his constituents care about.
“It’s a fascinating race to watch,” said Chuck Wolfe, the president and chief executive of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which promotes L.G.B.T. candidates. “Mike hasn’t done anything to earn the ire of conservative groups other than them now knowing that he’s gay.” What’s more, Republican primary voters who turn against him would be throwing away the seniority he’s accrued over eight years in Harrisburg.
Fleck is in the midst of several balancing acts. Because he suspects that some national antigay organizations will funnel money into the district to oust him, he’s raising some of his own campaign funds outside Pennsylvania, including from gay donors, though opponents could use that against him. Such fund-raising is obviously one reason he cooperated with this column.
And while he doesn’t see his sexual orientation as central to his candidacy, he doesn’t want to forfeit the chance to educate his constituents and be a balm for local gays and lesbians as tortured as he once was. The way he threaded the needle at the town hall, which was focused on higher education, was to invite the openly lesbian president of a rural Pennsylvania university and publicly thank not only her but also Peggy Apple, “her partner of 26 years,” for coming.
After the town hall, the two women, Fleck, Licht and I went to dinner nearby.
“This is probably the largest L.G.B.T. gathering in the county,” Fleck joked.
The university president, Karen Whitney, said that the warm reception she and her partner had received in their community had convinced her that a big part of progress in rural America depended on gays and lesbians showing up, sticking around, weaving themselves in. “People meet you and they don’t immediately change their stereotypes, but they do have to adjust,” she said.
That’s what Fleck is hoping for and counting on, an adjustment. If it proves to be too much to ask and he’s defeated in the primary next May, he said he would nonetheless feel that he had accomplished something, noting that many closeted gay men in rural Pennsylvania had sought him out for counsel.
He recalled one in particular. “I had a Mennonite drive two hours to my house to ask if I thought he could still go to heaven,” Fleck told me. Before last December, that man wouldn’t have known where to turn. He wouldn’t have found an ear and solace in an overgrown log cabin on Fleck Road.