TV & Radio
October 06, 2006
Investigating "the congressional closet"
In September 1996 The Advocate ran a story by J. Jennings Moss titled "On the record," which has been repeatedly cited as the deliberate outing of congressmen Jim Kolbe (pictured) and Mark Foley. Decide for yourself. Here's the original text of that now infamous investigation.
By J. Jennings Moss
On the record
Heated debate over House approval of the antigay Defense of Marriage Act shines a wary spotlight on the congressional closet.
They spoke to their colleagues—and the nation—from experience. They argued that by passing a bill that defines marriage strictly as a union between a man and a woman, the House was trampling on the civil rights of gays and lesbians. They were talking about their own rights as gay men. And everybody knew it.
Steve Gunderson, Barney Frank, and Gerry Studds made their status as gay men relevant to the debate that took place in July. Arguably, the marital status and sexual orientation of every member of Congress was at issue when the House voted 342-67 to approve the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a bill that would allow states to avoid recognizing same-sex marriages granted in other states. (Hawaii could be the first to legalize such unions.)
Reporters quizzed Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican and a chief sponsor of the bill, about his three marriages. But they stayed away from approaching lawmakers long thought by many to be gay to ask why they voted the way they did. Gay rights activists, however—including many who abhor the practice of outing—argued that given the current climate and an issue as crucial and controversial as gay marriage, such questions were fair.
"If it's relevant to the issue, why not ask?" said Mindy A. Daniels, founder and executive director of the National Lesbian Political Action Committee. Or as Torie Osborn, former head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force put it: "Anything's a fair line of inquiry that's involving a public debate about morality and politics."
However, gay opinion makers were far from consensus on the issue. Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who disclosed his sexual orientation in 1987, was among those who expressed reservations. While Frank had threatened to out closeted House Republicans if the GOP tried to reinstate sexual orientation as a reason to deny someone government security clearance and while he conceded that gay marriage opens the door to asking lawmakers questions about sexual orientation, he argued that boundaries remain. "If you're not a hypocrite or misleading people," he said, "you have the right to be quiet about [being gay]."
The Advocate has a policy against outing, which the magazine defines as "the initial disclosure in a public medium or forum of someone's sexual orientation without his or her permission." For this story The Advocate followed up on prior reports in other media and on the Internet about closeted lawmakers where their names were mentioned. If these reports could be independently verified—that is, if at least three sources with professional or personal relationships with a lawmaker say they considered the lawmaker to be gay—the next step was to approach the lawmaker in question. They were verified, and The Advocate contacted Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona and Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, both Republicans, to ask them to explain their votes in favor of DOMA as well as to talk about their sexual orientation.
Both men objected to the latter line of questioning. "Even members of Congress should be allowed to have personal lives," Kolbe, 54, said in a telephone interview. "The issue of my sexuality has nothing to do with the votes I cast in Congress or my work for the constituents of Arizona's fifth congressional district." Upon reflection, however, Kolbe decided to come out soon after talking to The Advocate, saying the magazine's questioning of him was a chief factor. Foley, in written answers to The Advocate's questions, stated his belief that "a lawmaker's sexual orientation is...irrelevant."
But while Kolbe and Foley told The Advocate that a member of Congress's sexual orientation should not be an issue, activists were saying otherwise. Michael Petrelis—who gained notoriety for throwing a drink on Gunderson at a gay bar in 1991 and then publicizing the incident in an attempt to force the congressman to come out—used his computer to raise questions about several lawmakers he said were in the closet. Petrelis sent his own reports or forwarded others to a mailing list that included more than 100 activists, writers, and publications.
Shortly afterward a gay broadcast journalist in New England, Kurt Wolfe, discussed both Kolbe's and Foley's sexual orientation publicly. In late July, in a story on the congressional closet, Wolfe reported on WBAI radio in New York and on the cable television program Out in New England that Kolbe is gay. In a follow-up report August 8 on his television show, Wolfe also reported that Foley is gay.
In the past, both Kolbe and Foley probably would not have experienced the kind of scrutiny now thrust upon them. Activists used the standard that if a lawmaker or senior government official acted in a hypocritical way and was actually gay, then he or she was fair game for outing. What changed the rules for some activists was the gay-marriage issue. Gays and lesbians shuddered when Republicans introduced DOMA, threatened to rebel when President Clinton backed it, and demanded accountability when the House passed it. All eyes now are on the Senate, which is expected to take up the measure in September.
Apart from their controversial votes on DOMA, however, Kolbe and Foley are two of the most pro-gay Republicans in the House. They have voted consistently in the minority of their part to support gay rights and efforts to fight AIDS. Both signed pledges saying that their congressional offices would not discriminate based on sexual orientation, and Kolbe is cosponsor of a bill to outlaw antigay discrimination in the workplace.
Among those who were particularly pained by the House debate on gay marriage was Tracy Thorne, a former Navy lieutenant who made history in 1992 when he disclosed his homosexuality on national television. Thorne's family lives in Foley's district and has helped Foley in his political career. While Thorne said he respected the rights of people who choose to remain in the closet, he said a different standard applies to people who hold positions of power: "What I cannot respect or tolerate is one who makes that choice and then, in the name of self-promotion, climbs on the very backs of those who need help the most."
Both Kolbe and Foley defended their votes in favor of DOMA. Kolbe said he backed the measure because he wanted to preserve a state's right to decide whether to accept gay marriages. He noted that he had also backed an effort to conduct a government study about the legal problems same-sex couples face. Foley criticized those who used the debate to "bash" gays and lesbians but added that "there were many people who voted for this legislation—myself included—because they have genuine reservations about tampering with an institution many Americans regard as sacred."
As to how their personal lives influenced their votes, neither man offered explanations. "That I am a gay person has never affected the way that I legislate," Kolbe said in a written statement in which he came out to his constituents on August 1. "I am the same person, one who has spent many years struggling to relieve the tax burden for families, balance the budget for our children's future, and improve the quality of life we cherish in southern Arizona."
Coming out was a relatively short step for Kolbe, a six-term lawmaker from Tucson who four years ago ran against an openly gay Democrat and who was arguably the most open closeted member of Congress. He held parties at his home attended by such prominent gay men in Washington as Rich Tafel of the national gay group Log Cabin Republicans and Daniel Zingale, political director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay lobbying organization, according to guests who attended the events. He occasionally visited Trumpets, a gay bar in Washington.
For Foley, questions about his sexual orientation first surfaced publicly when he ran for the House of Representatives in 1994. His conservative primary opponent John Anastasio implied that Foley was gay, but the strategy received little attention, and Foley won the primary with 61% of the vote. In interviews for this story, several people close to the 41-year-old representative from West Palm Beach said they knew him as a gay man, although one also said he dated women.
"Frankly, I don't think what kind of personal relationships I have in my private life is of any relevance to anyone else," Foley said without defining how he characterizes himself. "I know one thing for certain: When I travel around the district every weekend, the people who attend my town meetings and stop me on the street corner certainly are a lot more concerned with issues like how I voted on welfare reform or whether or not Medicare is going to be there when they need it—not the details of whom I choose to have a relationship with."
The very thought of a return to outing angered some gay political operatives. "I don't think it's ever appropriate," said Zingale. Even though a vote for DOMA was a "disgrace and a moral failure," Zingale said, the vote was not grounds for outing. Mark Agrast, legislative aide to Representative Studds, said he could "think of many circumstances when outing is a great temptation but none in which is morally acceptable. It is a form of psychological terror."
Others tried to turn the spotlight on the congressional closet without naming names. "To all closeted gay and lesbian members of Congress," read a full-page ad in the July 26 issue of The Washington Blade, a gay weekly. "We call upon you to end your silence and defend your community in this time of unprecedented hostility."
Said Joel Lawson, a former staffer on Capitol Hill who helped create the ad: "Someone has to got to call them on this. There is no excuse for their vote. They might lose an election. They might not be as popular as they were. But these are tough times, and courage is never easy or risk-free."
Some of the 29 people who signed the ad, like Jeff Coudriet, a congressional staffer and president of Washington, D.C.'s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, said they fully supported outing. "I think we are at war up here," said Coudriet, "and if you hold back some of your troops, you're colluding with the enemy."
William Waybourn, managing director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and a signatory of the ad, said that while he is opposed to activists' outing people, he believes the press has a different responsibility. "There are no unfair questions for anyone in public life," Waybourn said. If lawmakers go to gay events, patronize gay businesses, live in a gay environment, but vote in an antigay way, Waybourn believes they should be called on it. "They're asking to be outed," he said. "They're not leading a secret life. They're fooling themselves."
Reporters routinely ask Catholic lawmakers to justify their votes in favor of abortion rights. They question African-American legislators who back an end to affirmative action. They ask small-business owners now in Congress to shed light on tax legislation that would benefit entrepreneurs. So scrutinizing closeted gay members about their voting records on gay and lesbian issues just seems to follow, Waybourn said.
Other prominent gays and lesbians interviewed for this article agreed. "We're approaching a time when the closet is no longer respected," said Osborn. "Fifteen years ago the closet was OK, even for gay people. The closet used to stand for privacy. Now the closet stands for prison."
Daniels also argued that members of Congress have chosen to live by different standards than private citizens. "They put themselves out there as public figures," she said. "You're taking all your stuff with you, including your skeletons. If you're not ready for that, don't go out there."