Jennifer Finney Boylan is a professor of English at Barnard College of Columbia University and a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her most recent book is “Mad Honey,” co-written with Jodi Picoult.
But almost as soon as the news broke that our favorite congressional dissembler apparently had a former life as “Kitara Ravache,” he felt it necessary to step forward and deny the whole thing.
I don’t know what disappointed me more, the possibility that he might never have really been a drag performer or that, if true, he felt it necessary to deny it. (On Saturday, Santos admitted to dressing as a woman but denied being a drag queen, telling reporters: “No, I was not a drag queen in Brazil, guys. I was young and I had fun at a festival. Sue me for having a life.”)
Why, I wondered, did Santos (R-N.Y.) feel so strongly to respond to this particular controversy? What was there about wearing a dress that was somehow more shameful than, say, lying about the Holocaust, or making up stories about 9/11?
On Instagram, a former friend of Santos’s, Eula Rochard — a Brazilian drag queen — posted a photograph of herself that sure looks like she’s with the young man then known as Anthony. The photo shows him in a lovely red off-the-shoulder sequined dress, brunette wig and a pair of dangly earrings. A second source quoted by Reuters avowed that the young Mr. Santos had, during this same time period, aspired to be Miss Gay Rio de Janeiro.
But the congressman said that the claims were “categorically false” and added that he would not be “distracted nor fazed by this.”
Previously, when confronted with a long string of fabrications, from claiming that he was a volleyball star at a college he never attended to his tale about having worked at Goldman Sachs, he never felt it necessary to respond with much more than, “I have my story to tell and it will be told next week.” Which he never really got around to doing.
But an accusation that he once performed in drag — which would put him in the perfectly normal company of Rudy Giuliani — this, apparently, could not stand.
For me, looking upon that photo — in which the person shown, let the record show, looks fantastic — it is impossible not to think of the Chico Marx (not Groucho) line, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
My disappointment that Santos found it necessary to disavow something that, unlike his lies, should really be no source of shame, went deeper the more I thought about it. There’s a trope about “deceit” in the national conversation around transgender people — that we are somehow not what we appear to be, that we are going through the turmoil of transition not to find a sense of hard-won authenticity but instead as part of some kind of imaginary plot to harm the womenfolk.
Santos isn’t trans, but it can’t be good to have this new element folded into the larger story of the congressman as a liar and a deceiver. It’s exactly this trope that has done people like me so much harm.
It also doesn’t help that my fellow progressives are finding so much merriment in the Santos drag story. The amusement, on the surface, is about busting him, once again, for his hypocrisy, and if so: fair enough. But there’s something deeper and meaner in the laughter, too, I think, as if the one thing that might bring Republicans and Democrats together is their shared disdain for a man in a dress.
It’s Republicans, though, who are attempting to turn that disdain into national policy. In a season in which the GOP appears to have no policy agenda besides obstruction, opposition to drag queens appears to be one of the few things that the current Republican Party actually believes in.
Santos was elected last fall as the first non-incumbent gay Republican member of Congress. Which on the surface seemed like a good thing, some of his actual politics notwithstanding. The more queer people we have in Congress, the more likely it is that our voices will be heard. Also, the more gay Republicans who make it to Congress, the more likely that members of the GOP might come to understand that sexual orientation, and gender identity, aren’t issues unique to liberals. We’re everybody.
In the end, though, there’s no such thing as “actual politics notwithstanding.” Upon arrival in Congress, Santos seemed inclined to join the House Freedom Caucus. That would be the group of conservative legislators committed to, among other things, rolling back marriage equality and employment protections for LGBTQ Americans. They appear to believe that any suggestion that queer lives can be fulfilling, and normal, and fun is part of some (actually fictional) program of “grooming” children into being gay, or lesbian, or trans.
No one can “turn” a child gay, in the same way that no one can “turn” a child straight. What you can do is “turn” someone from being a close-minded bigot and into someone more accepting of all the many different ways there are of being human.
With the latest twist of his story, George Santos had an opportunity to make people think well of him again. He might have said, “It’s true I did drag in my younger days; that was a fun time and I want everyone to know that I support everyone’s right to pursue their dreams, whether they are part of my LGBTQ community or part of some other marginalized group still seeking full equality under the law.”
He could have said that, and for a single moment, won back a little of the respect he’s lost since his election.
But he didn’t. Because the crowd he seeks to join has no place in their hearts for anyone who is different. Because the crowd he seeks to join is less interested in legislation than destruction. Because the crowd he seeks to join isn’t really all that concerned with whether the things it says are true.