This month: those Charlie Crist rumors.
The easiest way to open a conversation at a cocktail party in Sarasota these days is to bring up Charlie Crist and the rumors. Everybody has heard them, and everybody has formed an opinion, and everybody is willing to voice it.
There are three general responses. The first--and smallest--response is, "He's can't be gay, he's married." A much more popular response is, "So what? It's nobody's business."
And somewhere in between is the response voiced by the supporters of gay marriage and adoption. "If he is gay he's a hypocrite and needs to be outed."
The reasoning goes like this: The governor has aligned himself with the anti-gay camp established by the right wing of the Republican Party and is actively working to deny civil rights to gays, so if he has been gay all the time and has attained immense personal power by hiding the fact, then he doesn't meet the threshold of integrity that we demand of our leaders.
The rumors occasionally surface in the mainstream media; but their true home is the Internet, where they live a lively and raucous life. Why the mainstream media doesn't leap in is much discussed. Most attribute it to discretion and lack of nerve, or proof that the mainstream media is losing its influence and that the Internet now controls the news.
But a new movie entitled Outrage--already shown on HBO and just out on DVD--may bring the controversy out in the open. It's a documentary about closeted politicians, mostly Republicans, who uphold the family values slate. It tells the story of the wide-stanced former senator Larry Craig and his infamous men's room incident, of former congressman Mark Foley and his obsession with teenage boys, of Mayor Ed Koch of New York, who refused AIDS funding in the early part of the epidemic, and of Gov, Jim McGreevey of New Jersey, who found himself being blackmailed by a former boyfriend. (Incidentally, it also features Rep. Barney Frank, who has always been openly gay and is now one of the most powerful men in Washington.)
The case it builds against Charlie Crist is eye-opening but ultimately circumstantial. There is no smoking gun--no photograph, no arrest, no taped phone message. What there is are several men saying the governor is gay and that they have had sex with him. But if there is anything I've learned over the years, it's that men sometimes lie about their sex lives. Let me rephrase that more accurately--men always lie about their sex lives. Sometimes they exaggerate, sometimes they minimize. It is the one area that basically good, moral men have no compunction telling bold-faced lies about. Just think of Bill Clinton and his famous "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." I myself am just as guilty. I claim a sexual encounter with Allen Ginsberg. It sounds cool. But guess what--it never happened.
The governor is also the victim of coming a little too close to too many gay stereotypes for comfort. Gay men are famous for something called "gaydar"--an uncanny ability to pick out other gay men on sight--and here the governor, unfortunately for him, makes a plausible gay candidate. He is beautifully groomed, impeccably dressed and clearly the patron of a tanning salon. He had been a lifelong bachelor until he married Carole Rome last year. (There was a seven-month marriage back when he was 23, but even this doesn't work in his favor, as many gay men have short, unhappy first marriages when they are young.) And, I hate to say it--when he tosses out the first pitch at a baseball game, he throws like a girl.
In his favor, he was slapped with a paternity suit once way back when. That must have been a cause for celebration.
But if Outrage doesn't quite convince us about Charlie Crist, it does paint a vivid picture of the gay Republican lifestyle. Yes, there are gay Republicans, and they are a well-known phenomenon in the gay world. Their position is analogous to black Republicans--out of sync with their rank-and-file brethren, they profit from their close relationship with the elite. Are they proof of inclusiveness, of the appeal of the Republican Party as something that works for everyone? Or is an undercurrent of self-loathing at work here, a twisted identification with something that oppresses them?
Another point that Outrage makes convincingly is the unusual number of gay men and women drawn into the political world. This is a phenomenon that exists right here in small-town Sarasota. While their sexual orientation often makes them difficult to elect, that doesn't stop them from, running the machine--staffing offices, preparing policy papers, organizing campaigns.
The film estimates that 30 to 40 percent of staffers in Washington are gay, and this figure would surprise no one in the gay world. Washington is one of the most popular gay weekend getaways, in fact. You go to San Francisco for the bars and leathermen, to New York for the bars and Broadway shows, and to Washington for the bars and Congressional staffers. The fact that the two main accusers of Crist, both of whom said they slept with him, worked for ultra-conservative former Congresswoman Katherine Harris speaks volumes right there.
As the governor gears up for his primary campaign against an opponent with not just impeccable conservative credentials but a satisfactorily convincing wife and family, he must feel like the Tom Cruise of American politics. Those damn rumors just won't go away no matter how much he jumps on the couch.
If the rumors are true, a smoking gun will finally appear and his career will be over. He will join Larry Craig and Eliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods in the media litter bin of flawed and disgraced personalities.
But what if the rumors aren't true? Then our little scenario changes from sex farce to Greek tragedy. All the poor guy wanted to do was devote his life to public service, and now he's stuck in this nightmare of accusations that strike at the core of any straight man's pride and self-esteem. I just hope he doesn't turn into what Tom Cruise has become--a rigid control freak consumed with fury at the hand life has dealt him.
Charlie Crist's only hope is to turn it into a joke. It must be a well-crafted joke that doesn't insult gay people, that he doesn't use too often, and that somehow convinces us that he is both straight and forgiving to his enemies. A tall order, perhaps, but nothing that a couple of clever gay staffers couldn't put together.