William Rodriguez-Kennedy wanted to tell his story. Then he didn't.
Last week, after confirming an anonymous tip, CityBeat reported online that the 23-year-old had resigned from the local chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans after personal problems led to mistakes with the conservative LGBT group's bank card. After the story ran, an anonymous person continued to circulate rumors, restating the financial missteps and accusing Rodriguez-Kennedy of harassment.
The smears threw Rodriguez-Kennedy for a loop. He vacillated before ultimately insisting he have the chance to put the story out there and behind him. The incident is only the latest of tough transitions Rodriguez-Kennedy has undergone over the last few years—from being booted from the Marines to growing LCR San Diego into the national organization's chapter of the year and losing his title while in the depths of depression. He's a rising star among San Diego's gay leaders who's suddenly (and, he hopes, temporarily) fallen from grace.
A native of New York City, Rodriguez-Kennedy's family was living in Orlando, Fla., when he first came out—his mother had discovered secret letters he'd written about his sexuality. He kept it quiet when he joined the Marines, serving in Hawaii and Iraq. A fellow soldier outed him, and he was honorably discharged in 2008.
“It was devastating,” he says. “I had to deal with my normal duty stresses that every other Marine had to go through, and then I also had this looming investigation over my head and then the discharge. And this is me coming into the military at 17. This is all I planned to do.”
He sought a fresh start in San Diego and began an unlike ly political awakening: Kennedy-Rodriguez was one of the many Hillary Clinton supporters who couldn't get behind Barack Obama after he won the 2008 Democratic nomination.
“I did vote for McCain,” he says, “but I sort of held my nose for that one. I swear, if Hillary Clinton was the nominee, I might've been a Democrat. A very conservative one, but—.”
He began to reevaluate his positions: He's a hawk on international policy and national security, a defender of the Second Amendment, an advocate for fiscal responsibility, tough on immigration and limiting abortion (though still keeping it legal). In 2009, he gravitated toward the local Republican Party, associating with a handful of members of the barely active LRC chapter. He became vice president of the group, and then, by actively recruiting, he grew it to almost 40 members and was elected president.That wasn't easy, Rodriguez- Kennedy says.
“It's tough to get them rallied because you have the dual uncomfortable issues of being gay in a conservative community or being Republican in an LGBT community,” he says. “So, it's not a winner.”
Still, under his leadership, Rodriguez-Kennedy's Log Cabin Republicans became instrumental in several wins, including Republican County Supervisor Ron Roberts' victory over gay Democrat Stephen Whitburn. Rodriguez-Kennedy came to the defense of San Diego City Council candidate Lorie Zapf after CityBeat published homophobic emails she'd sent years earlier. Most notable was LCR's role, especially in terms of phone banking, in defeating last November's Proposition D sales-tax-increase initiative.
“All those [No on D] signs that popped up—you noticed there was, like, three signs to every ‘Yes on D'—that was me,” he says. “There was so many. I remember having those things in my car for months. Even before it was on the ballot, all those signs that were at City Hall? It was LCR who made them. All those people who were holding them? Those were LCR members, and that gave us a lot of credibility with the party.”
Ryan Trabuco, the current vice president for LCR San Diego, credits Rodriguez-Kennedy as well as Ralph Denney, a gay Republican who ran for the state Assembly in 2008 and 2010, with bringing him into the fold. Although their friendship is currently strained, Trabuco acknowledges Rodriguez- Kennedy's accomplishments.
“If you look at the win column, you can't deny there's a lot of notches and a lot that can be attested to his vision for the club,” Trabuco says.
Denney, whom Rodriguez-Kennedy describes as a mentor, says the former president generated much momentum for the gay contingent of the San Diego County Republican Party.
“His energy has opened a couple of doors that we had not been able to before,” Denney says. “He certainly wasn't the only one, but the Log Cabin Republicans has seen some pretty good successes over the last few months in terms of gaining acceptance and moving the Republican Party towards the center and away from social issues, and he certainly had a part in all that.”
Rodriguez-Kennedy's public profile became even greater when he attempted to reenlist in the Marines in October 2010, giving interviews to the BBC, MSNBC's Chris Matthews and the gamut of local media. But, as they say, what goes up must come down.
“The DADT fight—the whole back and forth and the uncertainty of it—opened a lot of wounds that I thought I got past,” he says. “Then the divorce hit.”
Rodriguez-Kennedy and his domestic partner of two years split, and his life began to spiral. To an extent, he was in denial.
“I became very depressed, and I didn't address it,” he says. “I guess this is an issue with a lot of Marines. I definitely had PTSD for a long time, and it comes and goes. Sometimes it's dormant for awhile, and the depression didn't help. I started making little mistakes.”
He remembers that he couldn't keep track of his keys. Then he started mixing up his credit cards. The LCR card was identical to his own, and he says he accidentally made a couple of small personal transactions with the wrong card. This led to trouble with the organization's board, and because of his depression and internal board conflicts, his relationship with his colleagues seems to have spun out of control. Although he resolved the financial issue, he wasn't able to respond as quickly as the board expected. He felt unable to handle the stress and resigned while teleconferencing into a meeting in late April while on a therapist-ordered retreat.
“I admire the fact that he came out and said, ‘Look, I made a mistake,'” says Vicky Kerley, who succeeded him as president. “He's recognized it, and he's trying to move on from it, and I have told him that I really think there's a bright future for him.”
Kerley says that there will always be room for him at LCR, but Rodriguez-Kennedy acknowledges that, for now, the bridges are burned. He feels betrayed, especially since an anonymous enemy won't let it drop, accusing him of embezzlement and harassment. Board members contacted by CityBeat say the debit-card issue was a simple mistake, nothing more, but some acknowledged heated exchanges with Rodriguez-Kennedy and emotional text messages he sent while in a dark place. (Rodriguez-Kennedy does not dispute this.) But, even estranged, his friends have high hopes for him.
“As Will's friend, I don't like to see him in this sort of mind state and to see him hurt himself with what he's going through,” Trabuco says. “But the legacy he left with the San Diego chapter is we won Chapter of the Year, which is the first time we've ever done that.”
For the time being, Rodriguez-Kennedy says he's going to focus on earning his bachelor's degree in political science, his work on the San Diego Pride board and in county and state Republican Party organizations. He may attempt again to reenlist, but only if it helps the cause. What he'd really like to do is run for office one day.
“Now I can be a Republican leader as opposed to just the gay Republican leader,” he says. “I want to change the party and I want to make the LGBT civil-rights movement more of a bipartisan issue. That may be where my next fight is."