Washington's Gay War

4.13.2008

By Charles Kaiser

Two hundred legislators and congressional staffers gathered in the elegantly paneled Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol in February to bid farewell to Rob Cogorno. The 51-year-old congressional aide had capped his 25 years on the Hill with the job of floor director for Democratic House majority leader Steny Hoyer. That position had made Cogorno the majority leader's chief liaison to all the committee chairs in the House.

Now Hoyer's key aide was leaving his fulcrum of power to join one of Washington's most successful lobbying firms, and his affectionate Hill colleagues had turned out in force to pay their respects to a beloved staffer.

Two weeks after the event, Cogorno can barely remember the remarks of Hoyer or House speaker Nancy Pelosi -- or 'even remember much of what I said,' he tells me, 'because I was so emotional and nervous.' But he will never forget the send-off Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank gave him.

'Now that Rob is leaving us,' Frank told the happy crowd, 'he'll finally be able to give the Miss Adams-Morgan pageant as much attention as it deserves!'

That left the gay half of the crowd in hysterics. The straight people laughed too -- but they didn't really get the joke until the gay staffers explained it to them.

The Miss Adams-Morgan pageant is the premier amateur drag event in the nation's capital, and for as long as anyone can remember Cogorno has been its master of ceremonies, presiding in white tie and tails over the boisterous but strictly private no-press-allowed event in the grand ballroom of the Hilton Washington. The no-press rule is no joke -- it's supposed to protect the gown wearers who might still be 'passing' inside the offices of right-wing Republican legislators.

Welcome to gay Washington in the 21st century, where the gay Democrats are proud and out on the Hill and in the lobbying firms on K Street, while many gay Republicans still cower in the closet until they trip themselves up with off-color instant messages to teenage pages, or conduct unbecoming to a United States senator in an airport bathroom.

Serving his 14th term in the House, Democrat Barney Frank is the dean of proudly gay government officials in the United States. Since the Democrats recaptured Congress last year, Frank has also been one of the most powerful people in Washington, serving as chairman of the House Financial Services committee.

Frank tells me that even before so many people became open about who they are, Washington was a place where men like him could thrive. 'This has always been a good town for gay people,' says Frank, 'because it's one of those places in America where you stand out the least if you're not part of a nuclear family. It's full of men who are there without their families.'

Think J. Edgar Hoover in pre-Stonewall days, and his lifelong spousal and possibly sexual companion Clyde Tolson -- the two bachelors used to get caught snuggling next to each other on a golf cart in suggestive pictures snapped for Life magazine. For three decades these two gay blades drove to work together, lunched together, vacationed together, and even got buried together -- but only after Tolson had inherited all of Hoover's estate and moved into his dead boss's house.

The supreme irony of that relationship was, as the chief terrorist of gay employees of the federal government (as well as a near-blackmailer of almost every president he worked for), the founding director of the FBI was the only man in town who could flaunt such an unconventional relationship with impunity.

Once upon a time, closeted gay people mostly feared outing by Washington cops or counterintelligence agents. Now the main danger to closeted Republicans -- especially those working for antigay legislators -- comes from other gay people like Washington activist Michael Rogers. Rogers's website BlogActive regularly outs gay Republicans -- whom Rogers considers fair game if they actively fight against the rights of gay people in their public lives or work for a legislator who does. (Because Larry Craig has a miserable record on gay rights, readers of Rogers's blog knew all about the Idaho senator's bathroom-based proclivities long before he was arrested for them in Minneapolis.)

What Rogers does makes some Democrats squeamish, because they think no one should ever decide for someone else when he must come out of the closet. But Representative Frank is not among Rogers's detractors.

'I think what Rogers does is legitimate,' Frank tells me. 'I think hypocrisy is something to go after. If you had pro-life people having abortions, or if Sarah Brady had a gun, there would be no hesitation. Think of any other context in which people would be allowed to blatantly violate the public policies they advocate and say, 'I have a right to keep this secret.''

The erudite Frank -- often voted the smartest member of Congress by Hill staffers -- cites John Locke's second treatise on civil government as the 'philosophical grounding' for his position.

'Locke says that one of the major arguments for, in effect, representative government is, if the people who make the laws are not subject to the laws, they will make bad laws with impunity,' Frank says. 'That was a very important principle in the document that was the single most important influence on our Constitution. A basic principle of free government is that rulers must be subject to the laws they make.'

Practically all Republicans -- and quite a few Democrats -- disagree with Frank about this, but the Massachusetts pol has never hesitated to fight fire with fire in Washington's inflammatory culture wars. Frank recalls that in 1989, Republican hit man Lee Atwater (Karl Rove's role model) tried to imply that newly elected Democratic House speaker Tom Foley was gay by comparing his voting record with Frank's and accusing Foley of occupying a 'liberal closet.'

Frank struck back at once: He announced that if the Republicans didn't back off, he would out every gay Republican politician he knew. Atwater immediately sued for peace: He had the White House switchboard track down Foley to tell him the attacks would stop forthwith.

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