Friday, October 20, 2006

Washington Out of the Closet

The Foley scandal has ripped the veneer off of one of the realities of our political world. There are hundreds of staff members in Congress and in the White House who are gay or lesbian. Many of them, probably most of them, are working for the party of "family values," the Republicans. The Washington Post takes note today:

In October 1993, after the ban on gays in the military was replaced with a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, three Oklahoma congressmen said they wouldn't hire an openly gay person onto their staffs. Then-Rep. Jim Inhofe (R) told the Tulsa World: "I would not appoint a gay person in that type of leadership position."

That declaration sent a ripple of fear across a certain set on Capitol Hill. A small, bipartisan group of staffers huddled and formed the Lesbian and Gay Congressional Staff Association, which now has a confidential e-mail list of more than 200. And a frustrated aide contacted the Tulsa World and gave an anonymous interview.

I'm gay, he told the newspaper, and I'm on Inhofe's staff.

The aide was Kirk Fordham, former chief of staff for disgraced former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and a key player in the ongoing investigation of the page scandal, said Hill sources who requested anonymity because of the investigation.

In the 13 years since, even as gays have moved visibly into mainstream America, they hold a tenuous, complicated spot within the ranks of the GOP, whose earlier libertarian, live-and-let-live values have been ground down by the wedge issue of opposition to gay rights. And, even though an Inhofe staffer confirmed last week that his boss still maintains his employment ban, many gay men are key aides to Republican legislators, powerful silent partners in winning elections by pledging allegiance to religious "values voters" ever on the alert against "the homosexual agenda."

This dichotomy -- or hypocrisy, depending on who's doing the labeling -- has been forced out of the closet by the page scandal, just as surely as Foley.

"You have to separate the marketing from the reality. The reality is, these members are not homophobic. For the most part, they're using this marketing to play to our base and stay in power. They have to turn out the votes," said David Duncan, once a board member of the Lesbian and Gay Congressional Staff Association and a former top aide to Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio), who last week pleaded guilty to corruption charges linked to the Abramoff scandal.

Andrew Sullivan, the openly gay conservative columnist, calls the Republican leadership "closet-tolerant."

"They're tolerant of gay people but they have to keep quiet about it because their base would go crazy if they ever express it. That's the bottom line," Sullivan said. "They have this acute cognitive dissonance, which is a polite way of saying hypocrisy."

In their day-to-day dealings, even the most conservative Republicans can display an ease with normalizing relations with gay people. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) ranks No. 3 in Senate leadership and has likened homosexuality to bestiality. A rumor erupted in summer 2005 that his chief spokesman, Robert Traynham, was gay. When Traynham confirmed the rumor, Santorum promptly rushed to his defense, issuing a release calling his aide "a trusted friend . . . to me and my family."

After a breakup with his boyfriend, Duncan got "some relationship advice" from Ney over dinner at Morton's with other staffers. Ney told him "how difficult it is to find the right match," recalled Duncan.

At a State Department ceremony last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice swore in Mark Dybul, the new global AIDS coordinator and an openly gay man. With Laura Bush and Dybul's partner, Jason Claire, looking on, Rice introduced Claire's mother as Dybul's "mother-in-law," a designation that made evangelical leaders howl in protest. "Morally provocative," chided Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, in a mass e-mail.

A Republican strategist who has served in several key positions during his 17-year career on the Hill said: "Most of these Congress members would be perfectly happy if they didn't have to vote on another gay issue. For some it is an issue. For some . But the truth is, a lot of members are more tolerant than their voting records would have you believe. Look at [Rep. Roy] Blunt [R-Mo.], [Rep. Eric] Cantor [R-Va.], [Rep. Adam] Putnam [R-Fla.]. They know gay people. They have gay friends. But they speak out against gay rights. They have to. That's where the votes are." All three voted to amend the Constitution to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman...

This is the silver lining in the dark cloud of this scandal. It exposes the truth about life in Washington, which is no different than life everywhere: there are glbt folks living and working in all walks of life. But more to the point in this case, many of the Republicans in office who employ these folks know about their sexual orientation and don't care. They want the best people they can find and sexual orientation has no bearing.

Sure, they are hypocrites for employing them and befriending them and then going out and promoting anti-gay measures like the marriage amendment. And I certainly hope those who are up for re-election this cycle are defeated. But events like this scandal force them (legislators) out of the closet; it becomes plain to everyone including their anti-gay-friendly constituents that they really don't have a problem with gay folks. They employ them, befriend them, attend their commitment services, defend them when they are attacked.

And in this way another small barrier to full acceptance is broken down. No doubt having this reality exposed will enrage some of the most religiously conservative folks, but for many who are simply uncomfortable or uninformed, it builds a bridge to understanding and takes us one step closer to a more just world.

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