By Eugene Robinson
Friday, October 6, 2006
Let's deal with the circumstance that dares not speak its name: How much of the Mark Foley scandal's impact is due to the fact that he's a gay man who preyed on young boys?
The basic story line -- powerful man exploits children -- would be the same if Foley were straight and underage girls had been the subject of his lurid attentions. But would the intensity of the scandal be the same? Would there be all this unseemly finger-pointing and hand-washing among the House leadership? Would Dennis Hastert be fighting to keep his job; would Christian conservatives be so apoplectic; would the whole Republican Party look as if it were on the verge of a nervous breakdown?
I doubt it. There would still be a scandal, but I think Foley's now-acknowledged homosexuality was crucial in turning a crisis for the party into a potential catastrophe. In a perfect world that wouldn't be the case, but you might have noticed there's not a lot of perfection in Washington these days.
It's tempting to put it all down to hypocrisy. The Republican Party has gone to such lengths to demonize homosexuality that it must pain the leadership to reveal that such a thing as a gay Republican congressman could even exist. The party has stigmatized gay people as "them," not "us" -- as a class of people whose "lifestyle" is unsavory and whose committed relationships must never be recognized, lest the republic instantly crumble to dust.
There had been warning signs about Foley's enthusiastic interest in young male pages for years, and the inaction of House leaders is just about impossible to explain -- either they ignored the situation, which would be an act of stunning cynicism, or they genuinely didn't know about it, which would suggest woeful incompetence. Not an attractive choice of stories to tell for a party that preaches so much about moral standards and personal responsibility.
Still, I don't think hypocrisy alone is enough to explain why the Foley mess is such a big deal. I think it goes deeper.
One of the central tenets of anti-homosexual doctrine is the notion of "recruitment" -- that adult gay people lure young people into homosexuality as a way of increasing their numbers. The most extreme anti-gay activists perceive a full-fledged conspiracy. The Traditional Values Coalition, a group whose homophobia can only be called rabid, goes so far as to claim that, after being enticed into sexual acts, the "young 'initiates' into the strange world of homosexuality are to be trained to reject the moral beliefs of their parents."
This is complete bunk, of course -- most new research has tended to support the idea that homosexuality is more a matter of nature than nurture, and in any event the notion of an organized "recruitment" drive is far beyond ridiculous.
There are people, though, who are not consciously bigoted against gay people but who find homosexuality difficult to comprehend. There aren't many things more primal and specific, after all, than an individual's sexual desires. For some people who have no base of knowledge about gayness -- and, often, whose pastors routinely denounce homosexuality from the pulpit as a sin -- the basic idea of recruitment, without all the paranoid conspiracy trappings, seems to explain the inexplicable.
Foley's lawyer explained the former congressman's behavior by saying that Foley was drunk and, by the way, had been molested by a clergyman when he was in his early teens. Was he laying the foundation for a possible legal defense? Or does Mark Foley, until this week still at least nominally closeted at age 52, actually believe that's why he's gay?
In any event, the recruitment myth helps explain why social conservatives, who make up perhaps the most loyal and energetic segment of the Republican Party's base, are so up in arms. And that outrage, in turn, helps explain why the party has been so frantic all week, so uncharacteristically slow to come up with a game plan for responding to the scandal. Social conservatives were already grumbling that the Republicans talk a good game but never get around to addressing their core issues. Now comes this.
In pre-feminist times, people thought of young girls as particularly delicate and vulnerable. We worried about their being compromised or corrupted by older men. It's fascinating that much of today's America seems to be more viscerally worried about young boys.