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Being gay in the GOP
Congressman Mark Foley: A model of political hypocrisy and personal cowardice

REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN Mark Foley of Florida thinks it’s "revolting and unforgivable" that people are openly speculating that he is gay. Revolting? Unforgivable? Is Foley serious? What’s revolting about being thought gay? What’s unforgivable about asking the question?

The five-term congressman should familiarize himself with the cool-straight-guy response to such speculation: thank the questioner for the flattery but then own up to heterosexual misdeeds like bad haircuts and mismatched clothing. Did Foley miss Ben Affleck’s elegant handling of persistent gay rumors? "I’m not stylish enough to be gay," Affleck said. "I have trouble trying to pick out which shoes go with which pants."

But then, that would only work if the 48-year-old congressman were heterosexual. Which he is not. Foley is gay. It’s one of those open secrets that’s more open than secret. It first came up during his initial run for Congress in 1994. A right-wing opponent in the GOP primary sent out a mailing saying that Foley was gay. Foley answered the accusation — and in this context, it was an accusation — by telling the media: "I like women."

Two years later, after Foley voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Advocate outed him along with another closeted lawmaker, Congressman Jim Kolbe, who’d voted in favor of the anti-gay measure. Of Foley, Advocate reporter J. Jennings Moss wrote: "In interviews for this story, several people close to the 41-year-old from West Palm Beach described him as a gay man, although one also said he dated women." The magazine also spoke with former Navy lieutenant Tracy Thorne, who came out on national television during the gays-in-the-military debate. Thorne knew Foley because Thorne’s father was one of Foley’s staunchest supporters, dating back to Foley’s time in the Florida state legislature. Thorne matter-of-factly told the Advocate: "Mark Foley has spent his entire life in the closet."

Kolbe came out after being interviewed by the Advocate. But Foley declared the topic of his sexuality off-limits to the magazine and the public: "Frankly, I don’t think what kind of personal relationships I have in my private life is of any relevance to anyone else."

More recently, the question of Foley’s sexuality has been raised in his campaign for the Senate seat currently held by Democrat Bob Graham. Many political observers think Foley, who is popular with voters and campaign contributors alike, has an excellent chance to win the Democratic seat. His only weakness? Notwithstanding his vote in favor of DOMA, Foley is one of the most pro-gay Republicans in Congress. He has a long, consistent record of supporting gay issues like domestic-partnership benefits, anti-discrimination legislation, and AIDS funding. His office maintains a policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. GOP strategists worry that this will make Foley vulnerable in the primary — so much so, in fact, that White House strategist Karl Rove tried to convince US housing secretary Mel Martinez to run for the seat.

Three weeks ago, New Times columnist Bob Norman described all the talk about Foley’s pro-gay voting record without mention of Foley’s homosexuality as the "giant, pink elephant in the room." He wrote: "Foley, the nine-year conservative Republican U.S. representative out of Lake Worth, is gay. That is no revelation to political and media types. Everyone knows it, though no newspaper outside the gay press has ever really touched the issue."

Shortly after Norman’s column appeared, the Washington Blade, a Washington, DC–based paper that covers gay issues, followed up the story. Sensing the beginnings of a media frenzy, Foley called a press conference last week to address the rumors. "I believe everyone’s talking about it," Foley said, according to the Miami Herald. "This is a proactive attempt to talk with you all relative to the chatter that’s going on behind the scenes."

That’s when Foley said the speculation about his sexuality was "revolting and unforgivable." Here’s what’s revolting and unforgivable: Mark Foley’s calculated political decision to refuse to discuss his homosexuality in order to better present himself to the hateful right-wingers who dominate GOP politics. Here’s what’s revolting and unforgivable: Mark Foley’s silence about his homosexuality even as US Senator Rick Santorum, the third-ranking senator in the GOP, has compared homosexuality to incest and bestiality. Here’s what’s revolting and unforgivable: Mark Foley’s description of speculation about his sexuality as "revolting and unforgivable" in order to make himself palatable to voters from the only state in the nation that bans gay and lesbian people like Mark Foley from adopting children.

Throughout his career, Foley has straddled the public-figure/private-life line. When the Advocate came calling in 1996, Foley said, "I know one thing for certain: when I travel around the district every weekend, the people who attend my town meetings and stop me on the street corner certainly are a lot more concerned with issues like how I voted on welfare reform or whether or not Medicare is going to be there when they need it — not the details of whom I choose to have a relationship with."

He took a similar line with reporters during his bizarre press conference last week: "Zero in on my track record and my ability to do the job I am seeking to do."

Foley’s desire to see politicians judged by their job performance was noticeably absent in 1998, though, when he voted in favor of two of the four articles of impeachment brought against then-president Bill Clinton. Foley’s desire to see private lives kept private is noticeably absent today as he strongly backs Attorney General John Ashcroft’s assault on civil liberties and freedoms under the guise of fighting terrorism.

Foley told reporters last week, "My mother and father raised me and the rest of my family to believe that there are certain things we shouldn’t discuss in public. Some of you may believe that it’s old-fashioned, but I believe those are good ideals to live by." So it’s "good ideals" to deny the basic dignity of your life by refusing to talk about your family? It’s "good ideals" to encourage people to think you are something that you are not?

If the Foley flap continues, some will say that he should come out in order to be a role model to younger gay men and lesbians. Please. Foley is no role model, unless he’s modeling political hypocrisy and personal cowardice. Others will say that the decision to come out is a personal one and Foley shouldn’t be forced into doing something he’s clearly not ready to do. Right. Foley is comfortable enough with his homosexuality to be out to every political insider in Florida even as he remains "closeted" with the public. Why he thinks he can still play this game with the public and get away with it is a mystery.

There is nothing shameful in being gay or lesbian. That Mark Foley thinks there is, and that he can exploit this by bullying reporters who ask him legitimate questions about his sexuality, is revolting. And unforgivable.

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Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003
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