Closeted in the capital: they're powerful, Republican, and gay. Will the marriage battle finally get them to come out to their bosses?
"This is nothing new. This city has historically been somewhat conservative in terms of interconnecting personal and professional lives," Catania says, adding that he believes most gay men and lesbians in such situations eventually the of living in the closet and find another job.
That breaking point may arrive soon for some as Washington becomes the center of the storm in the debate over gay marriage. The Senate and the House trove already held several hearings on the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would change the U.S. Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage and could prevent states from passing their own laws to establish domestic partnerships, civil unions, or marriage-like rights for gay couples.
Discussion of the amendment has exposed a painful personal and professional catch-22 for the closeted gay men and lesbians who live and work in and around D.C.--especially those in powerful positions as chiefs of staff for conservative lawmakers or as rising stars in think tanks with conservative cultures. Their bosses may not harass them and may welcome their same-sex "special friends" in private but oppose gay rights in public. And yet these gay or lesbian staffers cannot work to convince their bosses to change their opinions--unless they come out first.
It is a peculiar spot to be in. But Washington is a peculiar town for its gay and lesbian residents. It has a sizable number of households occupied by same-sex couples, a diverse nightlife, and some of the most comprehensive local civil rights laws anywhere. Yet it remains entrenched in power, strategy, rules, and tradition. Cultural shifts in D.C. don't happen quickly. In the 1950s bureaucrats prided themselves on purging government agencies of gay and lesbian employees. As recently as March, a Bush administration appointee removed references to sexual orientation discrimination from the Office of Special Counsel's Web site. The move angered many gay rights groups. Washington continues to be a place where closeted gay men may prepare antigay briefings for their bosses in the House or Senate during the day but hit Dupont Circle's gay bars at night--never mixing the political and personal.
Getting a firsthand look at closeted gay men and lesbians is a daunting task. Their doors aren't just closed; they are bolted shut and double-locked, with tiny cracks allowing only for notes to be slipped through. Those who were contacted for this article had plenty to say about leading a double life, but they talked only on the condition that their names or positions not be published. Some even required that their e-mail interviews be first cut and pasted to a new message and then forwarded by colleagues to The Advocate.
"Most people can leave their work at the office," says "John." "Mine follows me home. How would you like to turn on your television and see your boss, or your boss's cohorts, telling you what a horrible person you are every other day? Happens to me all the time ... and there's not a damn thing I can do about it." Adds another communicant, "Matt," who works for a major right-wing lobbying group: "I think it'd be valuable for people to know that there are gay conservatives working for change from the inside. But if the people I work for knew I was gay, I'd be on the other side of that door--and double-quick."
Some have long-term partners who are equally closeted at work--a particularly painful and awkward position as the gay-marriage debate ratchets up: "We're the D.C. 'power couple' that no one knows about," jokes "Steve," interviewed via a Gay.com chat room for men living in the D.C. area. Others are single and equally dismayed about the current political climate and the song their movement's leaders are singing about marriage rights for same-sex couples. "Let's just say the way this [gay] marriage debate is playing out on the Fox News Channel isn't exactly music to my ears," writes "Mark," who works on Capitol Hill for a conservative congressman from the South.
Steve Gunderson, the former eight-term congressman from Wisconsin and first openly gay Republican in the House, understands why some gay men and lesbians in Washington keep their sexuality and politics separate. He was outed on the House floor in 1996 by former California representative Bob Dornan during the debate over the federal Defense of Marriage Act. "I can't name the number of times during this process when folks asked if I 'was married and trod kids,'" he says. "Not knowing them, and engaged in a totally professional situation, I would simply say, 'I'm not roamed.' While not a lie, it was not the whole truth." Gunderson remembers asking his partner to stay home while he attended events for members of Congress and their spouses. He knows the creeping discomfort that comes with living two lives: "[It] became increasingly unacceptable both to me personally and to my integrity."
Still, "in 2004 there is simply no acceptable reason for conservatives to remain in the closet," Gunderson says. "They need to deal with the comfort--or lack thereof--of working in an environment where they are unwilling to be honest with themselves and their colleagues."
Carl Schmid, an openly gay Washington consultant who was a key player in drumming up support among gay voters for George W. Bush in the 2000 election, says that some upwardly mobile gay conservatives may want to change attitudes about gays, but revealing the truth about their sexuality or same-sex relationships isn't a fast-track method for career advancement. "They believe in the cause, the president, and the ideals of the Republican Party," says Schmid. For conservatives, coming out might mean they won't be considered "part of the team" or they'll be "labeled a liberal."
It might be tempting for groups on the other side of the political aisle to dismiss closeted gays and lesbians in Washington. But "we believe that coming out is an intensely personal process, and rather than judging people, we try to meet them where they are on their path," says Mark Shields, a spokesman for the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. With a constitutional amendment against gay marriage being discussed, Shields says any gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered individual who comes out helps "put a human face on this issue, and that is what changes hearts and minds."
Ironically, until the end of World War II, Washington was a sort of mecca for gays and lesbians, says David Johnson, an assistant history professor at the University of South Florida and author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. The city had several gay bars, and federal agencies largely ignored employees' private lives.
When Sen. Joseph McCarthy rose to power, he charged that "homosexuals and communists had infiltrated the federal government, which would weaken national security," says Johnson. The U.S. Park Police began a "pervert elimination campaign" for D.C. parks that were popular cruising spots for gay men--including Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. Their arrest records were forwarded to the federal agencies that employed these men, and hundreds lost their jobs. As Johnson once put it, "To many Americans in the postwar era, Washington, D.C., was a white-collar town full of long-haired men and shorthaired women--social scientists and other experts--who were imposing their ideas on the country. They felt this smothering bureaucracy threatened American traditions of individualism and serf-reliance." Gay men and lesbians were grouped in with that crowd.
Gay rights pioneer and longtime Washington resident Frank Kameny received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1956 and moved to Washington to take jobs at Georgetown University and later at the U.S. Army Map Service. He was heading home one night when he stopped to watch two officers--working as part of the city's "morals division"--arrest a man suspected of "homosexual conduct." The officers spotted Kameny and also arrested him. A year or so passed, and Kameny's name and sexual orientation became known to his superiors. He was fired from his job and could not get another one with the government.
Kameny refused to remain silent. In a well-known case--that the U.S. Supreme Court eventually refused to hear--he sued the government to get his job back. Realizing that might never happen, he and a friend essentially founded D.C.'s gay rights movement in 1961 when they formed a chapter of the Mattachine Society. They staged the first gay picket on the White House four years later, and in the following decades, gay and lesbian federal employees began to gain greater rights in the workplace. In 1995, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order prohibiting the government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation in the granting of security clearances. In 1998 he signed an executive order banning antigay discrimination against any federal civilian employee. Both executive orders still stand. Johnson notes that "at least on paper," gay men and lesbians in federal civilian jobs have equality on the job.
What may ultimately empower the current group of closeted gays and lesbians in Washington is the fact that debate over the Federal Marriage Amendment has exposed a rift among Republican lawmakers. Senate majority leader Bill Frist has warned that same-sex marriage is likely to spread across America like "wildfire." But moderate Republicans say they are hesitant to alter the U.S. Constitution to deny rights to a certain group of people. The conservative gay group Log Cabin Republicans has declared war on the amendment. In the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, father of out lesbian Mary Cheney, said same-sex marriage should be an issue left to the states. Now, as vice president, he supports Bush's call for the Federal Marriage Amendment and has said his daughter's sexuality is a private matter.
Schmid says that even if closeted gay men and lesbians remain silent, they'll speak loudly through the ballot box in November by voting Democratic or independent. "I remain a Republican ... it is who I am," he says. "But I can't tell you the strong reaction I am getting from many gay Republicans these days ... they say 'I can't vote for Bush; I will work for his defeat.' Or 'I won't vote at all' (because they won't vote for a Democrat) or 'I will never vote Republican again.' I have heard stories of people taking down Bush's picture in their homes."
Kameny remains shocked that any gay man or lesbian would remain in the closet in 2004. "This is not 1954, when things were truly dreadful," he says. "So I suppose, for these people, it's a closet of their own making."
Bergling is a TV news producer in Washington D.C., and the author of Reeling in the Years: Gay Men's Perspectives on Age and Ageism.