GOP politics may keep some in the closet

October 06, 2006|By Maura Reynolds and Jenny Jarvie | Maura Reynolds and Jenny Jarvie,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- At the Republican National convention in 2000, then-Rep. Mark Foley hosted a late-night bash at a Philadelphia gay bar where an acquaintance snapped a photo of an attractive young intern sitting on the Florida congressman's lap.

Months later, according to the acquaintance, when she offered to send him the photo, Foley looked anxious.

The intern, "male or female?" he inquired.

"Female," was the reply.

"Oh, thank God," Foley responded. "Send me that photo, I might need it someday."

For most Republicans, being photographed in a compromising position with a young woman could be scandalous. But in the sometimes strained world of gay Republicans, it was an asset.

Foley resigned last week over revelations that he engaged in sexually explicit electronic banter with male teenagers. And while it was the age of those House pages that forced his downfall and a criminal investigation, simply being gay had been a huge political liability for Foley for years.

Gays hold many prominent and visible positions in government and business in Washington. But inside the GOP ranks, being gay is still a risky proposition. In fact, with the exception of the military, perhaps no institution in America has as strong and secretive a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to homosexuality as the Republican Party.

"Obviously, the far right has kind of got a stranglehold on the Republican Party," said Paul Koering, a Republican state senator from Minnesota who acknowledged his homosexuality last year. "The very first time I ran, I literally almost made myself sick worrying about somebody finding out I was gay."

Congress has three openly gay members and one of them is a Republican - Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who is retiring at the end of the year. Kolbe acknowledged his sexual orientation in 1996 after a gay magazine was about to "out" him for voting against government recognition of same-sex marriages.

Staffers from both parties said they believe that several other Republican members of Congress are gay and remain, at least officially, in the closet.

"It's kind of like a secret society," said a former congressional staffer who is gay and who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

One reason for the secrecy, gay Republicans say, is that their party has grown more hostile to gays in recent years. The trend began with the 2002 midterm elections, when GOP leaders made the strategic decision to use religious conservative groups' opposition to gay marriage to drive voter turnout. For those groups, which consider homosexuality a deviant "lifestyle," perhaps no issue riles their membership more.

"While pro-homosexual activists like to claim that pedophilia is a completely distinct orientation from homosexuality, evidence shows a disproportionate overlap between the two," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins asserted this week in a message to supporters.

David Catania, a gay former Republican who serves on the District of Columbia City Council, said he left the party over its promotion of the Defense of Marriage Act. He expressed sympathy for his gay friends who remain active Republicans.

"They've hitched their stars to the party, hoping to hunker down and ride out the Taliban-esque wing, hoping their views will come back into the mainstream," Catania said. "It's got to be very demoralizing for them."

A gay Democratic staffer with gay Republican friends said that they tend to walk a narrow line - often open about their sexuality with family and friends, but professionally closeted.

"It's difficult for them," the staffer said. "For the most part, they grew up in Republican households and families. It's like a religion to them. They may even be out to their families. But they are not out professionally."

It's not yet clear whether the long-term effect of the Foley scandal will be to make the social atmosphere more amenable or more hostile for gay Republicans.

Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, one of the two openly gay Democratic members of Congress, expressed concern this week that the Foley scandal could lead to a "real purge of gays in the Republican Party."

Maura Reynolds and Jenny Jarvie write for the Los Angeles Times.

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