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Closet Cases

Mark Foley and the GOP

The most infuriating aspect of the Mark Foley fiasco is that we're still unclear on what exactly it is we're infuriated about. This was not pedophilia: The pages involved were all above the legal age of consent in Washington, D.C. It wasn't exactly pederasty either, given that we have no evidence (at least not yet) of any actual sexual contact between two live human beings. Sexual harassment? It doesn't appear that, at the time of the now- infamous instant messages, the pages were in Foley's employ. The best phrase I have been able to come up with for Foley's transgression is "virtual pederasty," with a large dose of extremely creepy and abusive behavior toward younger, vulnerable people whose trust he clearly betrayed.

Gay men, of course, went into a defensive crouch. Like Jews watching the Abramoff scandal, we winced at what we knew would be a collective blame-game. It always happens. There is no connection between homosexuality and an attraction to teenage boys--or at least, no more than there is between male heterosexuality and an attraction to teenage girls. But we know that, whenever a gay man is discovered in any relationship with a much younger man, the old pedophile smear will emerge, as, of course, it did in this case. This was not, in other words, "good for the gays."

Some comforted themselves with the thought that it wasn't good for the Republicans either. And there is some comfort there--purely on the hypocrisy front. The fact that, at the moment, it appears that the only law Foley may have broken was one he himself had helped pass is especially poignant. (The pages involved were of legal age according to the District of Columbia, but minors by the standard of an online predation law Foley championed.) There was even a video clip of Foley grandstanding with "America's Most Wanted." "If I were one of these sickos," he told the world, "I'd be nervous." Clearly not nervous enough.

Is it possible to feel sympathy for him? I guess I felt a twinge of it, as I feel when any gay man is subjected to public scorn and anger. And I do not want to doubt that he may have been molested himself as a teen; or that he might have an addiction problem; or that he has a psyche damaged by decades of internalized homophobia. What is the closet, after all, if it isn't the steadily crumbling facade of internal psychic damage? But, in the end, none of this matters. Foley is entitled to his weaknesses and his pathologies. He is not entitled to drag young people in his care into them. If you read the extended instant-message trails--and I don't recommend it--you see that some of the teenagers he corresponded with also appear confused about their sexual orientation. Some continued the online chats past the gross-out moment and past obvious red flags. We should not condescend to male teenagers with roaring hormones. They know what they're doing, and yet, they don't know what they're doing. Some may even have been gay themselves, and curious about the world of online sex. But that is not a mitigating factor. The role of older gay men toward teenage gay men should be to protect them, not to prey on them.

Late adolescence and early adulthood are often difficult times for homosexuals, as they have to adopt a public and adult persona they may have a hard time coming to terms with in private or alone. The worst thing one can do to them at such an impressionable age, I think, is to initiate them into the cycle of shame and denial that comes with the closet. And that is what Foley did. He entangled the next generation in the pathology of his own. He may, paradoxically, even have been generous and kind to the pages in other contexts. Several accounts actually speak well of his interaction with the post-pubescent serfs who work on the Hill. He didn't treat them with contempt or condescension, as others did. He took an interest in them, befriended them, and helped them in their careers. And we need not ascribe all of this to murky motives. Like other gay men existing in deeply homophobic institutions (Catholic priests, for example), Foley may have compartmentalized his life in ways that made him a good person in one box and an abuser in another. This is not an excuse for his behavior. But it does help explain the genuinely good feelings Foley seems to have inspired in many of his peers; the loyalty some of his proteges felt; and the stark discrepancy between that and his predatory behavior toward youngsters in his care.

This, at least, strikes me as just as plausible an explanation for the contrast as too much scotch. And it points to the obvious conclusion to this tawdry, depressing spectacle. There is something deeply sick about a Republican elite that is comfortable around gay people, dependent on gay people, staffed by gay people--and yet also rests on brutal exploitation of homophobia to win elections at the base. These public homophobes, just like the ones in the Vatican, may even tolerate gay misbehavior more readily than adjusted gay people do. If you treat gay sex in any form as a shameful secret to keep concealed, the line between adult, consensual contact and the sexual exploitation of the young may not seem so stark. That's how someone like Speaker Dennis Hastert could have chosen not to know: He was already choosing not to know Foley was gay. In this way, Hastert is a milquetoast, secular version of Cardinal Bernard Law.

Many in the GOP have overcome this shame. The Log Cabin Republicans, for example, have shown how gay people can operate in conservative politics without having to be embarrassed, screwed up, or pathological. Some Republican senators--John McCain, Gordon Smith, Arlen Specter--seem able to deal with gay people and gay issues forthrightly, even if they do not support full gay equality. But such honesty is scarce in this White House and this Congress. The miserable example of Mary Cheney, Stepford daughter, shows the full force of this syndrome. It isn't pretty. It depends upon knowing when to be silent, tip-toeing around bigotry, and shilling for people who may be personally accepting but publicly so in debt to the religious right that they cannot even formally speak the word "gay" in public.

It is this deeper, more nuanced hypocrisy that this episode exposes. The closet tolerants--and they include both the president and vice president--exist in a party that has built its electoral machine on systematic intolerance and the fueling of populist fear of homosexuals. This edifice cannot stand indefinitely, and the sudden collapse of Mark Foley's career may be a portent of what is to come. The old manners of GOP Washington are being buffeted by the countervailing currents of gay mainstreaming and political opportunism. At some point, Republicans are going to have to choose between the two.