On Tuesday, Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig insisted “I am not gay and never have been,” and apologized for not telling his family and friends about his arrest and guilty plea to disorderly conduct in a men’s bathroom at the Minneapolis airport.
Earlier, he explained the incident as “a misunderstanding” by an undercover cop in an adjacent stall who took Craig’s gestures for a sexual invitation.
Whatever happened in that bathroom, Craig is feeling the intense combustion of perceived dissonance between his publicly stated values and private behavior that may have violated those values. He certainly isn’t the first.
Republican and Democratic politicians alike have faced charges of sexual misconduct; some have survived, others have foundered.
But the sting is never quite so potent, the irony not nearly so keen as when a self-proclaimed bearer of “traditional family values” finds himself (and it’s almost always a “him”) accused of engaging in behavior that he has condemned, particularly that of same-sex liaisons.
Lying to themselves
These high-profile political scandals raise an inevitable question: What is it with conservative male politicians who publicly espouse “traditional family values” while seeking same-sex relationships in the shadows? Do more of them live double lives than in the population at large, or does the shock value of their actions simply make it seem like more?
Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, sees two issues at play.
“One is a very general problem, and that is of people who preach absolutist values,” she said. But the other particularly affects evangelicals and other conservatives who base their politics on the Bible.
“For people who take an Old Testament approach,” she said, “homosexuality is so dissonant from their notion of morality that you have to lie to yourself 98 percent of the time."
In 1996, Coontz helped found the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families, a coalition of moderate-to-liberal mental health researchers and practitioners, to offer an alternative to messages about family disseminated by conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council.
"I don’t think many of us can embrace it when we behave in ways we oppose. But they have to deny it…and then they hate themselves, and I think there may be a certain ‘Now I need to be caught’” phenomenon, she said.
Warren Throckmorton, an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College, has a radically different view on how to handle homosexuality.
But he agreed with Coontz about why these politicians sometimes “act out” their same-sex attractions in ways that leave the public scratching its collective head.
“It is a double-life scenario,” said Throckmorton, who has developed a “sexual identity therapy framework” with a professor at Pat Robertson’s Regent University to help people who are in conflict between their religious values and sexual desires.
“Quite often, these are men with sexual thoughts and feelings that are at odds with the other beliefs and values that they hold. They spend a lot of energy trying to contain those [feelings]…yet the more you try to resist something, the more it tends to be an internal bully.”
That’s when people make self-destructive choices, Throckmorton said.
“There’s just a lot of secrecy. They on’t have anyone they can confide in,” he said. “And without this ability to have a confidant, or someone to work out these struggles with, the judgment can become impaired.”
Still, the repercussions differ, depending on a politician’s political affiliation.
It’s one thing for socially liberal politicians to come out of the closet; hardly anyone blinks an eye.
Consider former Rep. Gerry Studds and current Rep. Barney Frank, both from Massachusetts, and former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey. The first two faced no cost at the ballot box: Studds went on to be re-elected for six terms after being censured in 1983 for a gay affair with a congressional page, and Frank remains in Congress today, long after he came out and even after he was reprimanded for his association with a male prostitute.
Only McGreevey left office, and he did so by proclaiming, “I am a gay American”—hardly a repudiation of his sexuality.
It was quite another matter, though, when former Rep. Bob Bauman, a conservative Republican from Maryland who routinely criticized the state of American morality, was arrested in 1980 for trying to solicit sex from a teenaged male prostitute.
His memoir revealed that he’d led a double life for years, and he only came out after his defeat in Congress following his arrest. But his public antipathy toward gays made his fall all the more spectacular.
The list of conservative Republicans who have tripped over family values includes not only elected officeholders—Bauman and former Rep. Jon Hinson of Mississippi, another firebrand conservative who resigned from Congress after being charged with sodomy in a public restroom at the House—but religious leaders who embrace a fervent anti-gay theology.
The most recent and high-profile example was that of Ted Haggard, the evangelical pastor who left his Colorado Springs pulpit (and the presidency of the National Association of Evangelicals) after news broke of his sexual relationship with a male prostitute.
“We used to call this hypocrisy,” said Robert-Jay Green, executive director of the nonpartisan Rockway Institute in San Francisco, which works to counter “anti-gay prejudice” in public policy.
Reputations at risk
Patrick Sammon, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that supports gay rights, agreed. “I think voters don’t have much patience for hypocrisy,” he said, regardless of one’s party affiliation. “I think voters are tired of people who don’t live honest lives.”
Hypocrisy is not only a sin associated with closeted homosexuals, Sammon said.
He pointed out that Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, in July acknowledged having telephoned the alleged D.C. Madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey. Like Vitter, Sammon said, “Sen. Craig has tried to legislate morality at the same time he’s having serious character and integrity problems himself.”
But Green believes the issue is more complicated, particularly for politicians who hail from parts of the country “that still harbor discrimination.” And he doesn’t underestimate the personal toll that even the mere suggestion of homosexual behavior can take.
“They risk losing their careers, their reputations, their family relationships, and the cost is so high for them to accept their underlying same-sex attractions that many of them still remain closeted,” he said. “And being closeted is like being in prison.”
Their experiences, he added, “are no different from what many teachers, lawyers, pediatricians, etc., go through.”
But the consequences are, Green said: “The difference is that those other folks are not called upon to take public stands on issues of equal rights for lesbian and gay people, so the consequences are heightened for politicians, because they’re literallcalled out to vote.
“They feel they have to go extra lengths to appear anti-gay.”