Washington's Gay War
April 13 2008 8:00 PM EST
October 22 2015 2:23 AM EST
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 leaders chief liaison to all the committee chairs in the House. Now Hoyers key aide was leaving his fulcrum of power to join one of Washingtons 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, hell 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 didnt 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 nations 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 -- its 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 its one of those places in America where you stand out the least if youre not part of a nuclear family. Its 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 Hoovers estate and moved into his dead bosss 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. Rogerss 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 Rogerss blog knew all about the Idaho senators 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 Rogerss 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 Lockes 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 Washingtons inflammatory culture wars. Frank recalls that in 1989, Republican hit man Lee Atwater (Karl Roves role model) tried to imply that newly elected Democratic House speaker Tom Foley was gay by comparing his voting record with Franks and accusing Foley of occupying a liberal closet. Frank struck back at once: He announced that if the Republicans didnt 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. The tradition of gay Republicans working against gay causes was typified by Terry Dolan, whose National Conservative Political Action Committee raised millions of dollars to help Republicans gain control of the Senate in 1980. Five years later, at the height of the AIDS crisis, gay firebrand Larry Kramer recognized Dolan at a gay cocktail party in Washington and threw a drink in his face. How dare you come here? Kramer demanded. The nature of D.C. is nobody wants to rock the boat, a Democratic political consultant tells me. Larry told Terry, Youre a leather-queen power bottom trying to destroy all of us. But nobody in D.C. had the balls to do this after the Republicans were ascendant in 1994. Everyone knew it went right up to Ken Mehlman [who served until two years ago as chairman of the Republican National Committee]. And closeted gay Republicans are a much bigger national security threat than [openly gay] Democratsbecause people in the closet can still be blackmailed. The cease-fire between gay Democrats and gay Republicans ended abruptly in the fall of 2006, when another congressman named Foley managed to provoke all out civil war within Washingtons gay establishment. Mark Foley, a Republican representative from Florida, was forced to resign in September 2006 after ABC News publicized the sexually suggestive e-mails he had been sending to teenage male former congressional pages. Gay Democrats who had been disgusted for years by Republican efforts to win elections by demonizing gay people seized the moment to skewer their opponents. After the Republican leadership tried to blame gay staffers for protecting Foley from exposure, gay activists poured gasoline on the fire by circulating a list of 13 top Republican gay staffers on Capitol Hillnine chiefs of staff, two press secretaries, and two directors of communication. Recipients of the list included every right-wing organization the Democrats could think of, including the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the Alliance for Marriage, and the Southern Baptist Convention. The activists said their goal was Republican voter suppression. Maybe now social conservatives will realize one reason why their agenda is stalled on Capitol Hill, one Democrat told the blog Tennessee Guerilla Women. There was an instant reaction from the radical right. Don Wildmon of the American Family Association told The Nation magazine that a secret gay Republican clique was responsible for covering up Foleys follies with the pages. They ought to fire every one of them, said Wildmon. Family Research Council president Tony Perkins echoed Wildmon, Has the social agenda of the GOP been stalled by homosexual members or staffers? Democratic bomb throwers reveled in the success of their strategy. A Pew Research Center poll reported one month before the 2006 election that only 57% of white evangelicals planned to vote for Republican congressional candidates -- a 21-point drop from 2004. And everyone agrees that the Foley scandal was a key element in the Democrats success in retaking both houses of Congress that November. Meanwhile, gay Republican staffers were more terrified than ever that they would be outed by their Democratic rivals. The attacks of right-wing Christian leaders were equally upsetting. Patrick Sammon, then head of Log Cabin Republicans, told Cox Newspapers that closeted Republican staffers felt under siege because antigay groups have used this awful situation to push their divisive agenda. Eighteen months after it was circulated, roughly half the people on the list had left the Hill -- either because their members had been defeated or they had decided to join the private sector. There was a terrible irony to the gay Democrats strategy: The truth was, the only people who had made a serious effort to curb Mark Foley were gay Republican staffers, whose warnings were ignored by straight aides to Republican House speaker Dennis Hastert. The final report of the House Ethics committee whitewashed the responsibility of the Republican leadership, but it confirmed that two key gay Republicans -- Foleys former chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, and Jeff Trandahl, the former House clerkhad repeatedly warned Hasterts office about Foleys behavior. 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 Gannons 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 arent interested in reporters sexual history, he said. Obvious questions were never answered: Who was Guckerts 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 Clintons 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 Guckerts 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 Guckerts 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 didnt 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. Thats 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 bosss public position didnt bother me at all, said Duncan. If thats 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 hes fascinated by them: When I lived in the Bay Area, I thought they were an urban myth! I dont think Im sympathetic towards them, and I dont feel sorry for them, he continues. Thats not my job. I didnt want to demonize gay Republican staffers. Its not about being gay per se: If you come out on the Hill and youre 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 didnt 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 weve been sending -- Safe sex only! Use a condom! -- has worn off, Martin said. And if you think about the political and social climate weve been in and were still in, what message is that sending to gay men? No, you cant get married as gay couples. No, you cant be openly gay in the military. No, you dont 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. Send a letter to the editor about this article. 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