On Sunday, “60 Minutes” viewers got a glimpse of something akin to a unicorn: a Republican politician admitting she’d made a mistake. In an interview with Lesley Stahl, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., acknowledged that she was wrong to oppose marriage equality back in 2013, a particularly striking stance given that her own sister is a happily married lesbian. “I was wrong. Stahl was told by Cheney that she was wrong. “I love my sister very deeply. It’s a very personal issue and I loved her family very deeply, but I was wrong. It’s a very personal issue and very personal for my family.”
I’ve spent the past year deeply immersed in the question of what makes an apology matter.
As co-host of “Say you’re sorry ,”, an Audible podcast on public apologies I have spent the last year deeply pondering the question of what constitutes an apology. Public apologies can be made public, unlike private apologies which are shared between victims and offenders. Public apologies don’t only concern the victims of the offense, but also the people being apologized to. They are about all those who were directly or indirectly affected by that offense, and everyone who hears the apology.
Strangely, despite the very public nature of Cheney’s statement — it took place in a TV interview! She seems to be primarily concerned about the private effects of her homophobia past and how it affected her sister and disrupted her Cheney family.
“It’s a very personal issue,” Cheney notes. Cheney’s antisemitic stance on equality was not just a personal issue for millions of trans and queer Americans. It was very public. Many people have been put at risk by anti-equality stances. Low-income LGBTQ folks and LGBTQ people of color, who often lack the resources and connections that keep more privileged queers like Mary Cheney safe, are most likely to be harmed by the clout of politicians who refuse to enact laws that would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination — or actively support bills that prevent same-sex couples from adopting children or trans youths from getting necessary medical care and participating in school sports.
Granted. Cheney is not personally responsible for any anti-LGBTQ bills passed by Republican politicians. As a senior member of the Republican Party, Cheney is responsible for her peers’ actions. This is something government officials often have to deal with when they issue public apology. When President Bill Clinton apologized for Cold War-era human radiation experiments in 1995, he wasn’t expressing regret for his own actions or even the actions of the current American government. He worked with his administration to pass policies that would protect future human research subjects, and prevent similar abuses from happening again.
For Cheney’s apology not to be the same weight, it must begin with acknowledging that her opposition to gay rights is more than a family dispute and that it wasn’t just her sister and sister-in-law that were hurt. There is some evidence that she does get that. After offering her apology, Cheney continued to talk about American queer rights and trans rights. She said she had just met a transgender woman who admitted that she doesn’t always feel safe. “Nobody should be unsafe. Cheney stated that freedom means freedom for everyone. And yet, Cheney’s voting record again undermines her stated values. As some of her colleagues in Congress have pointed out, it was just a few months ago that Cheney voted against the Equality Act — a landmark bill that would have expanded LGBTQ rights and protections against discrimination in housing, health care and education.
Perhaps she experienced a radical change of heart in the last seven months. But if so, she needs to truly reckon with that — and acknowledge that her mistakes go far beyond some anti-equality remarks she made back in 2013. These remarks have been a part of her political identity for many years as a high-ranking Republican.
This is not to say that Cheney’s recent statement is worthless. It is always encouraging to see a prominent figure support LGBTQ rights, especially if that figure was once opposed. This shift says a lot more about Cheney’s culture than it does about Cheney. It’s difficult to see her apology beyond a small step in the right direction, as her voting record and actions will never match her rhetoric on prime-time TV.
Cheney still has a long way to go to fully reckon with her past actions — and their actual consequences. Apologies don’t mean that you have to admit your mistakes or change your position on hot issues. Apologies are about rectifying the damage you have caused. Cheney and many other politicians believe that setting things right takes more than just soundbites on TV.
Lux Alptraum is a writer and producer who served as development producer for Fusion’s Peabody-nominated show “Sex.Right.Now.” Her first book, “Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal,” explores our cultural obsession with feminine deceit.