The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

The Moral of the Foley Story

There’s one last thing about the Mark Foley story that I can’t skip commenting on. It’s been interesting to watch gay Republicans respond to this, particularly as the anti-gay religious fundamentalist that own the Republican party go into high gear with scapegoating, and conservatives like Ben Stein take the opportunity to libel their “gay friends.” It’s been amusing to watch the conspiracy theories unfold that liberal gay bloggers were behind the whole scandal or that Bill Clinton himself was responsible.

But there’s a point at which it starts inching over into the realm of the delusional, and then it’s just not funny.

I stopped laughing when I came across the notion of Mark Foley as a moral exemplar for the gay community.

Now that he has identified as a gay man, it would be nice if he could come forward as a moral exemplar for our community. We need gay people, particularly men, unwilling to shirk from their moral responsibilities as human beings. And to do so publicly — to challenge the notions of the anti-gay social conservatives who believe that merely by acknowledging our orientation, we have lost the ability to make moral decisions.

That means not only acting in a responsible manner, but also being forthright about our wrongdoings. Unfortunately, in making much of Mr. Foley’s past trauma and his decision to go into rehab, his lawyer downplays the moral aspects of his client’s actions.

And that is truly unfortunate. We gay people are just as capable of acting morally, of acting responsibly, as our straight peers. It’s too bad that all too many gay men in the public eye have not acted so responsibly. And that those many who do are not so forthcoming about their own moral choices.

Mark Foley, a moral exemplar? Maybe. But that only possible now that he is no longer a Republican congressman, because the nature of the party makes “acting morally, acting responsibly” impossible as a gay member of congress. Being closeted, having to lie about your life is the antithesis of “acting morally,” and eventually internalizing the inevitable shame that goes with being closeted makes “acting responsibly” a losing battle. At this point you can’t be openly gay and be a Republican member of congress. The last of that species is retiring this year, and unless the gay-hating base that makes up 30% to 40% of its voting power (the same 30% to 40% who expect to be having pie in the sky with Jesus any day now,and same 30% to 40% that think Bush is doing an excellent job, BTW, ensuring that while his ratings circle the bowl they never finally go down the drain), we won’t see the likes of an open gay Republican member of Congress for quite a few seasons because an openly gay Republican member of Congress — particularly one in a committed relationship with a same-sex partner — would be unacceptable to that very important block of voters.

What’s interesting is that the same gay Republican blogger holding up the possibility of Foley as a gay moral exemplar inveighs against the alleged existence of a list of closeted gay Republican Congress members and staffers without ever realizing that the possibility for such a list even existing is the heart of the problem. Ask yourself this. Where’s the list of closeted gay Democratic Members and staffers? If there is one, how long would it be? Probably a short one if it existed at all, because whatever faults the Democratic party has one can be an openly gay Democratic representative — partnered, even — and still have a career (though members from some southern and midwestern states may not be so fortunate).

Then there’s the assertion that the folks at HRC drew up the list. Like I said before, I worked at HRC when I first came to DC and even then it wouldn’t have been a huge stretch to put together that list. Most of the people who worked in the policy department and lobbied congress pretty much had carried around those lists in their heads, and most of that filtered down to the rest of us on the staff as well. It wouldn’t have taken a great deal of snooping or research. Hell, I could have written a list myself at the time. But, again, the root of the problem isn’t the list itself. That gay Republicans in congress have to be closeted, and in numbers enough to comprise a list of any length is evidence of a gay problem in the GOP. And the problem isn’t that there are gays in the GOP.

We’ve come a long way since homosexuals had two basic options: the closet or jail. But a good portion of the electorate, most of them Republican, still seems to long for the good old days when we didn’t have to think about “those people.” Both Libertarians and, generally, the Democratic Party have withdrawn their official support for the closet over time. States, too, are seeing what a losing battle this is, and allowing homosexuals to live their lives in conformity with, rather than opposition to, the law.

But that leaves Republicans and the religious right trying to live a 1950s lie in the new millennium. As Foley prepared in 2003 to run for the Senate, newspapers in Florida and elsewhere published stories about his homosexuality. But you’d never hear any of his colleagues saying such a thing. And Foley himself refused to discuss the issue, until his lawyer acknowledged Wednesday that the former congressman is indeed gay.

Being in the closet is hard to pull off without help, and for years Foley was eagerly abetted by his Republican brethren, whose willful blindness is at the heart of the current tragedy. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, majority leader John Boehner, and others in the House leadership are still under the impression that the closet, like Tinkerbell, will continue to live as long as we all believe. And believe, they do — against all the evidence.

But the number of people who believe in the closet is declining day by day and generation by generation. Hastert and the rest of his cronies are their own victims. The political turmoil they caused for themselves is only just.

But their failure to acknowledge the obvious reality has other victims as well: the boys whom Foley apparently pursued. Some of the messages show some tolerance of Foley’s advances, but not much more. This was no one’s “Summer of ’42.” The healthy disgust in one boy’s use of the word “sick” repeated 13 times seems about right.

But what can one expect from denying grown men — and women — a normal, adult sex life? Whether the denial of adult intimacy comes from religious conviction or the ordinary urge toward conformity, people who run away from their sexuality nearly always have to answer to nature somehow. For people who fear abiding and mutual love, the trust and confusion of the young is a godsend. Add to that the perquisites of power, and a degenerate is born.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The combination of homophobia and the closet produces a lot of twisted people, including some who internalize the belief in their own inferiority and unworthiness, as it appears Mark Foley did.

When an alternative newspaper in South Florida ran an article headlined, “Why won’t U.S. Congressman Mark Foley just say that he’s gay?” Mr. Foley held a news conference to complain about the “revolting and unforgivable” speculation and to say he would not discuss his sexual orientation.

“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,” he said at the time.

Another time, questioned about his sexuality, he told a local paper, “I like women.”

But Mark Foley was a gay man who moved and worked in among heterosexuals who wore wedding bands acknowledging their committed relationships (and, one assumes, accompanying sex-lives), and who daily discussed “certain things” in public like the mundane details of their lives with their spouses and families, with no more thought than they might give to commenting on the weather, because it was their natural right to do so.

It was a right that Mark Foley as a gay man didn’t have and wasn’t worthy of having in that world, because as a gay man the same mundane details of his own life would have been scandalous and shameful (and almost exclusively perceived as blatantly and merely sexual). Though Mark Foley was a gay man in a committed 19 year relationship, he would have to believe the above or at least appear to believe it if he wanted to continue to be a Republican congressman as well. And reports suggest he succeeded in believing in his own inferiority as a gay man.

Bubbling just below the surface was Foley’s private life, which some found hard to reconcile with his public actions.

“You have someone who for all intents and purposes is a gay person, but continues to perpetuate the myth that there’s something wrong with it,” said Tracy Thorne-Begland, a Foley family friend.

In 1992, as a Navy lieutenant, Thorne-Begland announced he was gay during a nationally televised interview, helping to lay the groundwork for the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Four years later, after Foley voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, Thorne-Begland called to complain.

“I said, how could you vote against me, my family, your own self- interest?” recalled Thorne-Begland, now an attorney for the city of Richmond, Va. He said Foley responded, “I could never compare any relationship I have ever had to the nature of my mother and father’s relationship.”

Foley, as a policy maker, may as well have added what was implied in the context of his recent vote: “And neither can you.” It stands to reason that if you see yourself as “less than,” you will see others like you as “less than.”

You can be gay and oppose gay rights legislation on political or philosophical grounds, certainly. But you can also do so out of a sense of personal unworthiness of equality, and project that on other gays who simply lack your insight to your unworthiness and theirs. Defensively labeling inquiries about sexual orientation as “revolting and unforgivable” may just be echos of labels already accepted and applied to yourself.

But as a policy maker, there are consequences that reach beyond the individual, to others who who share your “revolting and unforgivable” characteristic, when your votes contribute to policies the negatively affect and impact the lives of other gays and lesbians.

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.

… 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.

Yet, at least one gay conservative convinced that HRC supplied “The List” and is the driving force behind a purge of closeted gay Republicans (ignoring the angry heterosexual Republicans who apparently want a purge) wonders how the people at HRC sleep at night; the people fighting for much of what Mark Foley spent his congressional career voting against while supporting and empowering a party whose opposition to gay & lesbian equality is written into its platform, a party that required him to be closeted in order to be a player.

How can you change your party “from the inside” while in the closet, when the reality is that the closet changes you “from the inside” — for the worse — and that your party requires you stay in the closet? How can you look someone in the eye, from the other side of the closet, and justify voting against equality under the law for yourself and for them? How can you look someone in the eye and essentially say “We are not equal to everyone else. We deserve to be discriminated against”?

Shouldn’t the real question be how Mark Foley slept at night, for the last twelve years?

The moral of the Foley story is just that being in the closet is hazardous to your health, and often to others. Lots of others, if you’re in a position of power. And they may not particularly want to feel, or share your pain.

If Foley is to become a “moral exemplar” he’ll have to deal his own pain first, and answer for that he brought to others. That would be a start.

If he can take a first step.

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