It’s the last closet on the right

Why are Republicans so often caught in gay sex scandals?
It’s the last closet on the right
Photograph by Brian Baer/ Zuma/ Keystone Press

For his entire career, California’s Bible belt state Sen. Roy Ashburn was best known for sound bites like this one, dating to 2005. At a rally he organized to drum up support for a ban on same-sex marriage, the powerful Republican from Bakersfield stood beside the founder of the Traditional Values Coalition, Lou Sheldon, proclaiming heterosexual marriage “fundamental to civilization,” as Sheldon made vile claims about the lives of gay men and women—in all, “one of the most disturbing hours of my life,” said one reporter present. Ashburn, said to be “right of Rush Limbaugh,” has opposed every gay rights initiative that’s crossed his Senate desk, including measures aiming at fairness in jobs and housing, and one to protect gay youth.

Fast-forward to March 3 of this year, when a drunk-driving arrest near the Sacramento gay club Faces led him to announce, days later, to Kern County radio listeners: “I am gay.” Even north of the border you could practically hear the collective slap! as Republican hands met foreheads.

The gay Republican outed by scandal is, by now, a familiar event on the American political calendar. As Out magazine describes modern, gay Washington, Democrats live openly on the Hill and in K Street lobbying firms while their Republican counterparts “still cower in the closet until they trip themselves up with off-colour instant messages to teenage pages or conduct unbecoming to a United States senator in an airport bathroom.” Why demonize gay people in the first place? “Beats me,” says Wellesley College political theorist, Laura Grattan. Surely, she adds, there’s self-hatred or overcompensation going on—“they could take a stand against gay rights without being so publicly vitriolic about it.” Whether railing loudly against gay rights is a shield, a political ruse to win votes or an attempt to scare it out of their systems, the result is clear: ritual outings and public embarrassment—though on that score, Ashburn’s glassy-eyed mug shot barely registers.

Remember Larry Craig, the Idaho senator who in 2007 pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after his arrest for soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport washroom? Or state Rep. Bob Allen, deemed one of Florida’s most homophobic politicians, who faced the same charges one month later? (His defence: he’d offered to perform oral sex for $20, he said, because he’d been intimidated by the undercover officer, a black man.) And a month after that, Richard Curtis, a state representative from Washington, another anti-gay, “family values” Republican, stepped down amid allegations he’d solicited gay sex. His seamy police report made Craig look angelic. In 2006, Florida congressman Mark Foley was also forced to step down after reports of inappropriate conduct with male pages surfaced—a scandal that came hard on the heels of the Ted Haggard bombshell. The New Life Church pastor was never elected to public office, but until a male escort alleged a three-year relationship (and meth-fuelled romps), Haggard had been among the country’s most influential Christian conservatives; for a time, he’d reportedly met weekly with then-president George W. Bush.

The right certainly doesn’t own the trend. Just last week, Democratic congressman Eric Massa resigned amid allegations he’d sexually harassed male staffers. (You’d be forgiven, however, for confusion over his political orientation: the rookie representative, who curiously admitted to groping and “tickle fights,” was a lifelong Republican who’d switched allegiances over the Iraq war and blamed his downfall on Democratic fury over his opposition to health care reform.) And the GOP can’t match the Democrats for either volume or the tawdriness of their heterosexual scandals. The unending sleaziness of John Edwards is a good starting point; the sexual appetites of Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy are stuff of legend. Hypocrisy, meanwhile, runs on both sides of the aisle, says Grattan, noting that former New York Democratic governor Eliot Spitzer was “Mr. Ethics” until he was linked to a prostitution ring.

Ashburn, for his part, saw his anti-gay legislative stance as a “duty” to his constituents, most of whom, as he saw it, opposed extending legal rights to gays and lesbians. James West, the late Republican mayor of Spokane, Wash., who in 2005 was outed in a scandal, explained it this way: “If someone hires you to paint their house red, then you paint it red. Even if you think it would look better green.” West, who once advocated the removal of gay teachers and daycare workers, was tripped up trolling for young men in a dubious sting by Spokane’s Spokesman-Review newspaper.

Charles Moran, national spokesperson for the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian grassroots Republican organization, assured Maclean’s the GOP is moving away from a “negative, hate-based” feel for its gay membership. Polling data, however, suggests otherwise. For starters, 73 per cent of Republicans believe that openly gay men and women should be barred from teaching public school (19 per cent “aren’t sure”)—a measure Ronald Reagan vigorously opposed three decades ago. With friends like these, it’s hard to imagine the door of the seemingly crowded Republican closet opening wide any time soon.

But you never know. Ready or not, the GOP has welcomed its first openly gay senator. Last week, Ashburn was spotted at Zócalo, a popular Sacramento restaurant, in the company of a male friend, the San Francisco Chronicle reported; both, it was said, appeared comfortable and affectionate.