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Liz Cheney just apologized to LGBTQ Americans. Is it too little, too late?

Public apologies aren’t just about recognizing your past wrongs or publicly changing your stance on heated issues.

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. I was wrong,” Cheney told Stahl. “I love my sister very much. I love her family very much, and 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 the creator and co-host of “Say You’re Sorry,” an Audible podcast about public apologies, I’ve spent the past year deeply immersed in the question of what makes an apology matter. Unlike private apologies, which exist in the space between offenders and victims, public apologies are, well, public. And whether it’s a boarding school apologizing to an alumna survivor of on-campus assault or a YouTube star apologizing for a bad tweet, public apologies aren’t just about the people who messed up and the people they’re apologizing to. They’re about everyone who was directly or indirectly affected by the original 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 largely concerned with the private impact of her past homophobia and how her actions affected her sister and disrupted the Cheney family.

Liz and Mary Cheney arrive before the start of the swearing-in ceremony for President George W. Bush on Jan. 20, 2005 in Washington, DC.
Liz and Mary Cheney arrive before the swearing-in ceremony for President George W. Bush in Washington on Jan. 20, 2005.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

“It’s a very personal issue,” Cheney notes. Except that for millions of queer and trans Americans, Cheney’s anti-equality stance wasn’t just a “personal” issue. It was a very public one. Anti-equality stances have put numerous people’s lives, livelihoods and physical safety at risk. 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 isn’t personally to blame for every anti-LGBTQ bill passed by Republican politicians. But as a high-ranking member of the Republican Party, she bears some responsibility for the actions of her peers — something government officials frequently have to contend with when they issue public apologies. 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. Nevertheless, he still worked with his administration to enact policies that would safeguard future human research subjects and ensure that the similar abuses were never repeated.

For Cheney’s apology to carry similar weight, it would have to start with a recognition that her opposition to queer rights was bigger than just a family squabble, that it wasn’t just her sister and her sister-in-law who wound up hurt. And there is at least some indication that she gets that. After she offered up her apology, Cheney went on to speak more broadly about the state of queer and trans rights in America, saying she’d recently met a young trans woman who confessed that she often doesn’t feel safe. “Nobody should feel unsafe. Freedom means freedom for everybody,” Cheney said.

And yet once again, Cheney’s voting record 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. They’ve been part of her political identity as a high-ranking Republican for many, many years.

This isn’t to say that Cheney’s recent statement is utterly worthless. Having a prominent public figure come out in support of LGBTQ rights is always a welcome sign of progress, all the more so when that prominent public figure is someone who formerly opposed LGBTQ equality. But that shift still says far more about how the culture has changed around Cheney than it does about Cheney herself. And until her actions and her voting record match the rhetoric she offers up on prime-time television, it’s hard to see her apology as anything more than one small step in the right direction.

Cheney still has a long way to go to fully reckon with her past actions — and their actual consequences. Because apologies aren’t just about recognizing your past wrongs or publicly changing your stance on heated issues. They’re about repairing the damage unleashed by your mistakes. For Cheney, and for many other politicians, truly setting things right requires a whole lot more than just a sound bite on a TV show.