Washington's Gay War

4.13.2008

By Charles Kaiser

The other big gay scandal of the Bush years was bungled completely by the mainstream press. In January 2005 a blogger named Jeff Gannon who was a regular at White House briefings finally attracted the attention of his peers when George Bush called on him at a press conference so that Gannon could lob an exceptionally soft softball question at the president.

A little checking turned up the fact that Gannon's real name is James Guckert, that he had been rejected for a congressional press pass because of his lack of experience as a journalist, and that he had another interesting sideline -- as a prostitute.

Until he was exposed by the blogosphere, the White House had for some reason been giving Guckert daily press passes for two years. How could this have happened? Guckert told Anderson Cooper there was no mystery -- White House officials 'aren't interested in reporters' sexual history,' he said.

Obvious questions were never answered: Who was Guckert's patron in the White House, and why was he or she so eager to allow the nonreporter access to daily press briefings?

Imagine how reporters would have reacted if they had discovered a female prostitute had been granted special treatment by Bill Clinton's press office during his administration. But because this story was about a gay hustler and George Bush, the Washington press corps just shrugged.

Two months after the story broke, the mystery deepened when two Democratic representatives -- Louise Slaughter and John Conyers -- forced the Secret Service to release White House logs under the Freedom of Information Act to learn more about Guckert's comings and goings. Raw Story reported that Guckert had made more than 200 White House visits -- including 24 appearances when no White House briefings had occurred. On at least 14 occasions, records showed that Guckert's entry or exit time was missing from the logs. On several visits, Guckert either entered or exited by a different entry point than his usual one, and one day he actually checked in twice but never checked out.

How did the rest of the press react to all of these enticing details? The Hill, a congressional newspaper, derided the two representatives for their 'all Gannon, all the time' obsession, while virtually every other media outlet ignored the obvious leads in the Secret Service records altogether.

One mainstream reporter who is revolutionizing the way Washington sees its gay subculture is Jose Antonio Vargas, a 27-year-old native of the Bay Area who came out in high school at 17. Hired by The Washington Post two days after he graduated from San Francisco State University in 2004, Vargas started in the Style section, where he was assigned to write about the culture of video games.

To escape that beat, he wrote a series about AIDS that Washington Post managing editor Phil Bennett ran on the front page; the series was eventually nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Unlike previous generations of gay reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post, Vargas has never been reluctant to write gay stories for fear of becoming identified as a 'gay reporter.'

Vargas discovered to his astonishment that his newspaper had never profiled Washington resident and gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny -- the originator of the slogan 'gay is good' and arguably the single most important figure in the history of the gay rights movement. This would be the equivalent of The Atlanta Constitution never having profiled Martin Luther King Jr. Vargas quickly remedied this oversight -- and profiled Larry Kramer and blogger Michael Rogers as well.

In a feature about gay Republicans after the Foley scandal broke, a gay Republican strategist gave Vargas a perfect summary of how Republican legislators straddle the gay subject: 'Most of these Congress members would be perfectly happy if they didn't have to vote on another gay issue. For some it is an issue. For some. But the truth is, a lot of members are more tolerant than their voting records would have you believe. Look at [Republican representatives Roy] Blunt, [Eric] Cantor, [Adam] Putnam. They know gay people. They have gay friends. But they speak out against gay rights. They have to. That's where the votes are.'

Vargas also captured the tortured position of gay staffers. David Duncan had been an aide to Ohio congressman (and Republican homophobe) Robert Ney, who was eventually convicted of corruption charges stemming from the Jack Abramoff scandal.

'My boss's public position didn't bother me at all,' said Duncan. 'If that's the sacrifice that I have to make to keep my party in power, so be it.'

When I ask Vargas what his own attitude is toward gay Republicans, he says that he's fascinated by them: 'When I lived in the Bay Area, I thought they were an urban myth!'

'I don't think I'm sympathetic towards them, and I don't feel sorry for them,' he continues. 'That's not my job. I didn't want to demonize gay Republican staffers. It's not about being gay per se: If you come out on the Hill and you're a Republican, you lose power.'

Once Vargas even went on a blind date with a black gay Republican. He says, 'The whole time I was thinking, This is a really good article. But it was a really bad date, and I didn't want to spend any more time with him.'

Vargas actually got the best description of the downside of official Republican attitudes toward gay people when he was reporting a story that had nothing to do with politics. Marsha Martin, an AIDS administrator, was explaining the reason for the resurgence of unsafe sex among young gay men. 'The truth is, the urgency of the HIV prevention messages we've been sending -- Safe sex only! Use a condom! -- has worn off,' Martin said. 'And if you think about the political and social climate we've been in and we're still in, what message is that sending to gay men? 'No, you can't get married as gay couples.' 'No, you can't be openly gay in the military.' 'No, you don't have equal rights.' Those things produce a lack of self-esteem, a kind of self-loathing, and in that environment is HIV.'

When Vargas was going over that quote with his editor she was initially skeptical, he says. 'My editor looked at me -- this really fabulous person who is female and African-American -- and she said, 'Is this really true?'

'And I just looked at her, and I said, 'Yes.' To me that was a really good moment.'

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