06/02/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Mind racing, stomach churning, Chrissy Gephardt prayed she wouldn't pass out. "There's something I've been meaning to tell you," she told her parents, Rep. Dick Gephardt and his wife, Jane, over dinner in a St. Louis restaurant. "Tears started streaming down my face," she recalls. "It felt like the secret I'd kept for so long was spilling out of my heart."
Actually, Chrissy had two secrets to spill that evening in April 2001. She was unhappily married to her husband of four years, whom her parents adored—and she was gay. "I was basically saying, 'I'm not who you thought I was, and now when you have lunch with your friends, you can't say 'her husband,' but 'her lesbian partner,' " says Chrissy, 30. "I was afraid they would not love me anymore—and that I would ruin my father's career."
Her parents, teary-eyed too, rushed to quell the first fear. "We love our kids unconditionally," says Gephardt, 62, one of nine Democrats running for President in 2004. "We wanted her to know we supported her." In fact, says Jane, 61, "we'd had some inkling" that Amy Loder, 31, was more than just Chrissy's closest friend. The congressman and his wife talked late into the night about their daughter's troubles but never questioned her judgment. Says Gephardt: "They're a great pair, and we are happy for them."
As to his career, the voters will soon decide. By telling her story to PEOPLE, his daughter has become the first child of a national candidate to publicly discuss her homosexuality. "I think my presence out there is important," says Chrissy, who recently quit her job at Community Connections in Washington, D.C., where she counseled abused and mentally ill women, to work full-time on the campaign. "It illustrates that a gay family is a normal, loving family like any other."
Not everyone may welcome the message—or the messenger. "You're always concerned about people being unfair and saying hurtful things," says Chrissy's father. Gay relatives of other pols applaud her willingness to take the risk. "She's great for doing it," says psychiatrist Dee Mosbacher, 53, the daughter of former Republican Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher. Adds Candace Gingrich, 36, former Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich's half sister: "To be able to work on your dad's presidential campaign as an accepted, openly gay family member is huge."
Just 3 when her father entered Congress in 1977, Chrissy is no stranger to the stump. Growing up in the D.C. suburbs, she would travel to St. Louis every other summer with her siblings—Matt, 32, a software developer, and Kate, 26, a teacher—to work on Dick Gephardt's reelection campaigns. Their job, she says, was to "go door-to-door with my parents and stand there and smile." Still, politics made little impression on the bookish Chrissy until 1988, when her dad ran for President. "It's hard enough being an adolescent," she says. "But suddenly we've got Secret Service agents on the back lawn in a trailer." In 1991 she left for Northwestern University, where she began dating Marc Leibole, now an ophthalmologist. They eventually settled in St. Louis and wed in 1997.
From the beginning, Chrissy says, the relationship was based more on friendship than on passion. And when Leibole's ambition left her feeling abandoned—"He wanted to be the best doctor he could be, and he worked insane hours"—she began to confide in Loder, a classmate in her master's program in social work at Washington University. One day at a local coffee-house her new friend made a confession of her own. "I told Chrissy I was gay," says Loder, now a resource coordinator for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Chrissy ran to the bathroom and threw up. Loder recalls wryly: "My response was 'Great, this is the first person I ever tell, and this is the reaction I get.' " It wasn't disapproval or disgust, says Chrissy, but "an aha! moment about myself and how I felt about her."
It took months of therapy before Chrissy was ready to break the news to her husband; when she did, they held each other and cried. "It was hard for both of us," says Leibole, adding that he wishes his ex the best. "I'm glad she discovered it before we had a family." A month later she told her parents. After the divorce came through in November 2001, she and Loder moved in with the elder Gephardts for five months until they found jobs and a place of their own. "We went through a lot to get where we are today," says Chrissy, who now shares a Capitol Hill apartment with her partner, their dog and two cats.
Further ordeals are probably waiting on the campaign trail, but whatever happens, "we're going to be here for her," says her father. "Our first concern is whether our children are happy."
Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.