Hill Republicans Air Out the Closet

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2006; C01

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.

Like most gay Republican staffers interviewed for this article, the veteran strategist requested anonymity so he could speak freely about gays working within the GOP. Several Republican lawmakers declined to be interviewed about the subject, as did Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.

"You can't be a Republican and say that you're for gay rights on the Hill," the veteran strategist said. "You can say it behind closed doors. But you can't say it in public." That principle may explain why no fellow Republicans have publicly argued with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a vocal opponent of gay marriage who is blocking President Bush's nomination of Judge Janet Neff to the federal bench because Neff once attended a commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple.

"To be gay is a political issue and the party has to take a political stand," the strategist said, explaining how he works within a party whose social policy is at odds with his own. The "issues that matter greatly to me" are national security and foreign policy, he said.

For years, he said, he has existed somewhere between "don't ask, don't tell" and "we're here, we're queer, get used to it."

"I don't hide the fact that I'm gay," he added, "but I don't let it define me either, politically or personally." But he finds it troubling, especially in light of the page scandal, that the party's most conservative voices speak so loudly against "the so-called homosexual agenda," and the more mainstream, moderate Republicans -- including the Congress members that he's worked for -- take the conservatives' cue.

Some gay Republicans, such as Duncan, the former Ney staffer, say "it's all just politics."

"My boss's public position didn't bother me at all. If that's the sacrifice that I have to make to keep my party in power, so be it," said Duncan, who now is a law student at George Mason University.

Others, such as the veteran strategist, take it more personally. "Does it gnaw on me? Yes. Is it painful sometimes? Yes. How can I stand it? Well, you can't make change from the outside," he said.

Sullivan, for one, has called for an end to this compartmentalizing. The GOP has been riding two horses for too long, he said, "relying on gays to staff and support" them "while relying upon gay-baiting" to win elections, he said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out there's a conflict there," he added, "and now is as good as time as any to get off one horse -- the gay-baiting one."

In the summer of 2004, days before the vote on the defeated constitutional marriage amendment, the liberal blogger Mike Rogers posted on his Web site a list of Republican staffers and members of Congress who he claimed were closeted. To gay Republicans on the Hill it was "an outing scare." A worried chief of staff for a Republican senator, upon seeing his name on the list, approached his boss.

"I told him, 'You need to be aware of this, it's out there,' and he said, 'I don't care, just do your job well,' " recalled this staffer. "And I gotta tell you, there are a lot of Congress members who approached me" after the list was made public "and said, 'This is unfortunate, this is unfair, but don't worry about it.' "

In the weeks since the Foley scandal became Topic A on the Hill, the early sense of panic among gay Republicans -- "Start of a purge?" wondered the National Journal -- has ebbed. At first, Patrick Sammon, head of the gay Log Cabin Republicans, feared that the public might be influenced by the likes of onetime presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and Perkins of the Family Research Council, both of whom have linked homosexuality with pedophilia. Some gay Republicans cringed when they heard former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) tell Fox News that the House leadership wasn't quick to react to Foley because they would have been accused of "gay-bashing."

Sammon said such remarks seem to have roused what he called "the usual suspects" but have not influenced the general electorate, a majority of which favors equal rights for gays but opposes same-sex marriage, according to recent polls from the Pew Research Center. But Charles Francis, once a big fundraiser for Bush and a founder of the Republican Unity Coalition, a gay-straight alliance of GOP leaders, dreads that a backlash -- not just toward gay Republican staffers but also toward closeted Republican members of Congress -- will ensue. The Foley scandal, Francis said, is "a turning point" among Republicans that "to support a congressman who's in the closet makes no credible sense."

The House ethics committee was asked this week to expand its investigation of the page scandal to look into contacts between pages and Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), the only openly gay Republican congressman.

The veteran Republican strategist said he worried about the implications of that.

"These are two gay Republican House members," he said. ". . . The worst-case scenario is this all plays to the ugly stereotype that some people have about gays."

Kolbe, who declined repeated requests for an interview and who is retiring after this term, has been friendly to gay staffers on the Hill, at one point hosting at his home near Capitol Hill a welcome-to-the-House wine and cheese reception for members of the Lesbian and Gay Congressional Staff Association.

At the height of the "outing scare" two years ago, a young gay Republican staffer for a House committee said he approached Kolbe and thanked the lawmaker for simply being out.

While the public may have been in the dark before the Foley flap, "there's been a tremendous shift on the Hill in terms of being gay and being out about it," said Mark Agrast, a former top aide to former representative Gerry Studds, the Massachusetts Democrat who was the first openly gay member of Congress. Studds, who served in the House for 24 years, was censured by the House in 1983 after he admitted having had an affair with a 17-year-old page. Studds died Saturday.

"Maybe the Republican Party will come out about its true feelings about what many of them call 'the gay lifestyle,' " said Agrast, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and was one of the founding members of the Lesbian and Gay Congressional Staff Association.

"Sure, many Republicans might cloak their homophobia in the language of 'Well, some of my best friends are gay,' " Agrast added. "But many Republicans who speak out against gay rights aren't really being honest with the public as to how they feel about gays."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company