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Strange bedfellows: when it comes to politics and public opinion, it's OK if elected officials are gay--as long as no one has to think about their actually having sex. (Politics).

Mark Foley was furious. In May the Florida weekly New Times Broward--Palm Beach reported that the congressman was leading a secret gay life in Washington, D.C., where he is a powerful member of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. In a conference call with reporters two weeks later, Foley lashed out. The fact that I'm not married has led many people to speculate, but I'm not going to be dragged into the gutter by these rumormongers," he declared. "Even those who run for the United States Senate must have some level of privacy."

Foley, parsing his words carefully, made sure not to deny the veracity of the article, choosing instead to blame Democrats for spreading a rumor that he refused to confirm or deny. Gay activists immediately denounced Foley's choice of words, which they said implied homosexuality carries a disgusting connotation.

But whatever the moral implications of Foley's rhetoric, the congressman from Florida's Broward County was clearly responding to surveys showing that a substantial minority of voters--particularly seniors, who make up nearly 20% of his home state's electorate--are still profoundly uncomfortable with elected officials who publicly acknowledge their homosexuality.

In politics, as elsewhere in American life, when the ear hears gay the imagination sometimes sees "gay sex." And the idea of homosexual acts, unlike the more benign concept of homosexual orientation, remains a tried-and-true strategy for frightening swing voters and stirring up the religious right.

"There are still voters, especially seniors, who believe that when politicians say they are gay, they are automatically pursuing some radical sexual agenda," says Chuck Wolfe, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports openly gay candidates nationwide. "These are voters who are uncomfortable talking about anyone's sex life at all, and these are voters to whom Foley must appeal."

It was no coincidence that Foley made the remarks as he considers a 2004 race for the U.S. Senate, which does not include a single out gay man or lesbian among its 100 members. Although the country can boast more than 250 out elected officials, there remains a lingering discomfort with openly gay people in politics. It's a discomfort that some people are only too eager to exploit--as evidenced by Sen. Rick Santorum's recent remarks comparing homosexuality to bestiality, polygamy, and incest in discussing his support for state bans on private, consensual sodomy.

The Supreme Court's June 26 decision striking down sodomy laws may reduce the stigma of sex in politics, robbing the far right of a potent quill in its antigay arsenal. That could force antigay activists to shift their rhetoric from sodomy--and images of specific sex acts it evokes--to more family-friendly topics, such as gay people's access to civil rights, marriage, and adoption.

"There's still a real puritanical streak to Americans," says Lee Badgett, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "There's this constant, unfounded concern that somehow legalizing sodomy will lead to promiscuity and to AIDS. A lot of people have a hard time talking about sex in a neutral way, and that makes it harder to come up with sensible moral and ethical standards for sexual behavior. Marriage and family issues sort of sweep the sexual questions under the rug."

That may not be an entirely good thing, says Michael Bronski, author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom. "The gay rights movement says, 'Let's have marriage because we're just like everyone else,'" he says. "That is undoubtedly true--we are like everyone else--but it doesn't deal honestly with questions about sex. It wins us gains in the short term. But we should also insist on the integrity of gay and lesbian sexuality and not keep running away from it. We are not all like Will on Will & Grace. We have sexual and romantic lives too."

But that's precisely what Foley, who has long declined interview requests from The Advocate, believes may prevent him from breaking through politics' lavender ceiling. Opinion polls consistently show that while the public abhors sodomy laws and antigay discrimination, it continues to see homosexual acts as sinful. Foley's strategy seems tailored to that apparent contradiction: His liberal voting record on gay rights and his refusal to discuss his sexual orientation is a combination that endears his moderate and conservative constituents.

This time around, however, the 48-year-old Foley, may have missed a golden opportunity to reduce the stigma often attached to openly gay politicians. The May 8 edition of the New Times reported, as a matter of fact, that the fifth-term Republican is gay. Indeed, Foley, who has a longtime same-sex companion, is regularly spotted at gay parties and bars in Washington, D.C., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. When he called the press conference to respond to the article, many reporters assumed he was coming out.

It wasn't the first time Foley's sexual orientation made news. In 1996, after he voted in favor of the antigay Defense of Marriage Act, The Advocate reported that many people close to him described him as gay. Another House member featured in the story, Republican Jim Kolbe of Arizona, came out as gay shortly before the magazine, was published in order to avoid being outed. Kolbe has been reelected three times since then.

Arizona "has elected a number of terrific gay Republicans," including Kolbe, Wolfe says. "That's because [those politicians] were honest about who they are. They say, 'This is who we are, but we're not going to make a big deal about it. We're going to work on the issues our constituents care about.'"

Foley did not come out of the imbroglio over his sexual orientation smelling like the political equivalent of roses. In addition to equating rumors of homosexuality with the "gutter," he E-mailed supporters claiming that "Democratic activists have been feverishly trying to plant stories in various publications repeating second- and third-hand rumors about me." When asked to name those Democratic activists, Foley's chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, who is gay, named "the liberal gay press."

In fact, Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reported that the New Times article instead had been distributed widely by Wendy Rosen, the press secretary for another Republican House member, Clay Shaw, who has clashed with Foley.

Such political machinations leave little room for a more enlightened discussion of sex and values. "What politicians always forget when they are talking about sex and sexual orientation is that it's really all about love," says Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and coauthor of Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Sex and Character. "With the exception of the most hateful people, voters understand that in their own lives they can't live without love, and they would hardly expect their representatives to do so. We have to give people more credit for having a basic standard of fairness. Love, after all, is the universal language. It can overcome all barriers."
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Article Details
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Author:Bull, Chris
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Aug 19, 2003
Words:1157
Previous Article:The right fights back: will the U.S. pass a constitutional amendment to "protect" itself from gay rights? (The Sex Issue).
Next Article:Like a virgin: gay virgins prove that it's possible to separate the sex from the sexual orientation. (Culture).
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