The True Story Behind the Cheney Family Feud Over Gay Marriage and Cheney's Gay Daughter
As the Dick Cheney biopic Vice draws to a close, it leaves viewers with one of its most emotional scenes: Mary Cheney, the former vice president’s younger daughter, sobbing on the phone to her parents after her older sister has publicly rejected her marriage to her longtime partner, a woman.
Vice, written and directed by Adam McKay, takes some liberties with the life and rise of the VP — but, sobbing or no, the feud it dramatizes in the Cheney family over Mary’s sexual orientation was very much real.
The conflict, which fractured the notoriously close family five years ago, is back in the spotlight thanks to the film, which has drawn serious awards notice and is likely to keep the Cheneys in the headlines through the Oscars.
Here, according to previous PEOPLE reports, other news accounts and statements from the Cheneys themselves, is the true story behind their fight, the crux of which was love — familial and romantic.
Growing up, the Cheney daughters were a vivacious and personable duo: together on the road, handing out pamphlets and swag at campaign events.
“We were as close as sisters can be,” Mary recalled in her 2006 memoir, Now It’s My Turn.
While a junior in high school, Mary came out to her family as gay. Her parents responded with affirmations, though her mother said she was wary of a future made potentially harder by the world’s homophobia.
While little is known about her big sister’s response, the former vice president later wrote that “Liz has always believed in the traditional definition of marriage.”
Long before Liz entered the political arena herself, where she ultimately renounced gay marriage, the vice president seemed to have mastered a tricky balancing act. A leading Republican at a time when the party was campaigning on forbidding gay marriage, he voiced support for Mary, who was then in a longterm relationship with her later wife, Heather Poe.
Still, Cheney made clear his views were personal and he took no sweeping political action, couching the question of same-sex marriage as a states’ rights issue.
During his 2004 re-election campaign, President George W. Bush announced his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have written a ban on same-sex marriage into the U.S. Constitution. But Cheney came out against it and, according to Politico, was joined in his disagreement by Lynne and Liz.
“Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it’s an issue our family is very familiar with,” he explained to supporters at a campaign rally in Iowa, adding, “With the respect to the question of relationships, my general view is freedom means freedom for everyone. People … ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.”
Mary, who’d worked as an aide to her dad and as the director of vice presidential operations, told PEOPLE in 2006 that President Bush had said he “would understand if I wanted to put out a statement.”
She decided to remain silent. “For me, that would have been so inappropriate,” she told PEOPLE. “I signed on to be a staffer; I didn’t sign on to express my own point of view.”
Soon after leaving office, in a 2009 speech to the National Press Club, Vice President Cheney affirmed his personal position on same-sex marriage amid ongoing campaigns to outlaw it across the country.
“The question of whether or not there ought to be a federal statue that governs this, I don’t support,” he said. “I do believe that historically the way marriage has been regulated is at the state level. It has always been a state issue, and I think that’s the way it ought to be handled today.”
Three years later, in 2012, Mary married Poe with their two children, Samuel, then 5, and 2-year-old Sarah, in attendance.
The couple met decades earlier while playing ice hockey, according to The Washington Post. Mary was the goalie and Poe was playing defense on an opposing team.
Mary’s parents issued a congratulatory statement following their union.
“Mary and Heather have been in a committed relationship for many years, and we are delighted that they were able to take advantage of the opportunity to have that relationship recognized,” they said. “Mary and Heather and their children are very important and much loved members of our family and we wish them every happiness.”
Not in attendance? Liz Cheney.
But it was not her absence from the ceremony that would ultimately make so many headlines. About a year later, the rupture of the sisters’ bond took center stage after Liz launched a campaign for U.S. Senate in the Cheneys’ home state of Wyoming.
A hopeful for the Republican nomination in a deeply red part of the country, Liz began to receive angry messages and TV attack ads that accused her of “aggressively promot[ing] gay marriage,” Politico reported.
In response, Liz declared the opposite was true, upsetting the family’s longtime united front on the issue of Mary’s sexuality.
“I am strongly pro-life and I am not pro-gay marriage,” she said.
Liz went on Fox News Sunday and reiterated her stance on same-sex marriage — this time mentioning her sister by name.
“I love Mary very much, I love her family very much. This is just an issue on which we disagree,” she said in November 2013.
Mary and Poe, watching the episode from their home in Northern Virginia, were moved to respond. “Liz — this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree, you’re just wrong — and on the wrong side of history,” Mary wrote on Facebook.
She told a commenter on her Facebook that her sister’s politics “treat my family as second class citizens.”
“This isn’t like a disagreement over grazing fees or what to do about Iran,” she wrote. “There isn’t a lot of gray here.”
In her own social media post, Poe described the betrayal of Liz’s denunciation, raising the specter of a ruthlessness that put politics before family
“Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children,” Poe wrote. “To have her now say she doesn’t support our right to marry is offensive to say the least. I can’t help but wonder how Liz would feel if, as she moved from state to state, she discovered that her family was protected in one but not the other.”
At the time the sisters reportedly had not spoken in several months.
The former vice president, who had been heavily involved with his daughter’s Senate run, issued a statement with his wife supporting Liz while describing the sisters’ disagreement as a difficult and private family matter.
“This is an issue we have dealt with privately for many years, and we are pained to see it become public. Since it has, one thing should be clear. Liz has always believed in the traditional definition of marriage,” the Cheneys said.
“She has also always treated her sister and her sister’s family with love and respect, exactly as she should have done,” they continued. “Compassion is called for, even when there is disagreement about such a fundamental matter and Liz’s many kindnesses shouldn’t be used to distort her position.”
Despite her father’s backing, Liz’s campaign fell short. She soon withdrew from the race, citing family health concerns, but later successfully ran for Wyoming’s lone seat in the House of Representatives. She is now the No. 3 Republican in the House.
It remains unclear whether the sisters ever reconciled, following Liz’s public position against her younger sister. The family did not return requests for comment from the Post for an article last month.
Asked by Politico in 2015, if she and her sister had mended their relationship, Mary replied, “I don’t have to answer that.”
She was more circumspect two years earlier, before her sister gave up her bid for the Senate. That’s when she told Politico she wasn’t supporting her sister’s campaign but couldn’t even if she wanted to, as she was registered to vote in Virginia.
She signed off one email to the outlet with a note of indifference about Liz, a message made warmer only because it wasn’t as angry as she sometimes felt: “I am not saying I hope she loses.”