Only a few weeks before the midterm congressional elections, when the Republicans could lose control of the House and the Democrats could make significant inroads in the Senate, we learn more about the circumstances surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) inappropriate interactions with male congressional pages. The coverage of this story has evolved from discussion of a tawdry and improper series of e-mail exchanges and IM chats to larger issues not only involving questions about House leadership, but also about the status of the “gay Republican.”
This scandal demonstrates that, in the current climate, being gay and being Republican is untenable. Many gay, lesbian and queer activists have, for some time, asserted that gay Republicans must be fundamentally self-loathing. However, attraction to members of the same sex and advocating small government and low taxes need not be oxymoronic. If sexual attraction is just one part of a person’s identity, voting with one’s pocketbook really can be rational. The fact that some Republicans and some in the conservative blogosphere reacted to the scandal by suggesting an alleged cover-up by a “gay Republican cabal” on the Hill illuminates the party’s fundamental problems with its gay and lesbian members.
Homophobia and Republicanism are becoming inseparable. To be fair, the homophobia of a segment of the party has not (yet?) become a defining characteristic of that party. Furthermore, as someone with family and friends who still use the perhaps anachronistic moniker of “liberal Republican,” the moniker representing those bygone (perhaps even halcyon?) days when Nelson Rockefeller and Christie Todd Whitman still had a legitimate claim to the name of Republican, I am loathe to believe that my very accepting Republican friends and family cannot come to terms with my sexual orientation. They are basically good people who love their gay children and just want to keep as much of their income as possible — perhaps so that they can afford to pay for weddings and commitment ceremonies for their gay children.
The media focus on the so-called “velvet mafia” — those closeted or semi-closeted Republican Hill staffers — and the hostility they face within their own party reaffirms the current oxymoronic status of the gay Republican. It also raises the specter of the “outing” controversy of the early 1990s. Maybe the so-called “List” of “mafia” members circulating among Washington’s inner-Beltway corridors should be published in the Washington Post.
If these closeted or semi-closeted gay Republicans were out, they would need to find a way to reconcile their politico-economic beliefs (which are indeed a legitimate stance) and their sexuality. The party would also have to face up to its own internal hypocrisy, truly inviting — or maybe finally excluding — rather than simply tolerating the gay members of its party. Or maybe facing up to that hypocrisy would force an ultimate fissure of the party’s two camps — the social conservatives and the economic libertarians — who seemingly have very little in common. Such a development may make room for moderates like my parents, who still long to vote Republican but do not.
Of course, these ruminations are just idle thoughts if the gay men and lesbians in the Republican party remain quiet. If the Republicans do lose control of the House or Senate or both in the upcoming election, the party will not be compelled to answer to the dysfunctional logic of its numerous policy stances such as those on the war in Iraq, the war on terror or the inadequacies of its Medicare prescription drug policy. Rather, it can avoid any necessary self-assessment and simply blame the gays. It’s not a new strategy for that party. To garner votes in 2004, Republicans often blamed the gays for bringing on the destruction of civilization in the form of same-sex marriage. In 2006, they may again blame gay Republicans for fostering a crisis in the last few weeks before the election.
Ultimately, I don’t advocate outing gay Republicans; it’s just mean and preachy and ignores the personal nature of the process. But I do ask all those gay Republicans — inside the Beltway and beyond — just to come out of the closet. If you really believe in low taxes and small government and holding the course in Iraq among other Republican policies, then maybe the only way to be a good Republican is to be an “out” Republican. Force a reckoning within your party, make your own personal politics meaningful, and move American politics forward by coming out. Besides, Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day. Celebrate it!
If the sectarian violence of the Iraqi quagmire teaches us nothing else, it instructs, as James Madison once did, that hardened identities linked to one political party can be destructive to effective government and democratic competition. Openly gay Republicans might, in fact, take being gay off the table; for if there are openly gay Republicans and openly gay Democrats, being gay can no longer be a partisan issue. Maybe then we might just get — through bipartisan support — an Employment Non-Discrimination Act or a lifting of the military ban or an end to this distracting and mean-spirited call to write prejudice into our Constitution. And maybe, just maybe, Republicans who come out may take a step toward tackling the challenges of education, health care, national security, sound immigration policy, rebuilding our international alliances and the other pressing issues of our time.
Stephen Engel is a fourth-year graduate student in the Political Science Department. He is the author of “The Unfinished Revolution: Social Movement Theory and the Gay and Lesbian Movement” (Cambridge University Press, 2001).