Scapegoating gay Republicans

Rights advocates worry that the Mark Foley scandal could trigger gay-bashing by conservatives. But the loudest voice criticizing GOP gays is a gay Democrat.

By Alex Koppelman

Published October 10, 2006 4:30PM (EDT)

Ever since the Mark Foley scandal began to raise questions about how much Republican House leaders knew about the former Florida congressman's page problems, there have been whispers that the political mess could become an excuse for the GOP to bash gays. The same day that Foley's lawyer announced that his client was gay (an open secret around the nation's capital), CBS News reported that a senior House Republican "says there's a lot of anger at what he describes as 'a network of gay staffers and gay members who protect each other and did the speaker a disservice.'" On his blog the next day, the Nation's David Corn reported that a list of closeted gay GOP staffers had been sent to at least seven conservative Christian groups in an attempt to "set off a civil war within the GOP, to turn the anti-gay social cons against the GOP's Velvet Mafia."

But the first public shots in the war have been fired not by GOP leaders or the Christian right but by a Washington-based gay rights activist and Democrat, Michael Rogers. Known for a 2004 campaign to out closeted GOP gays, Rogers, a little grayer and just as scruffy and intense, is now threatening to use his blog to name gay staffers working for GOP leaders he alleges have been involved in covering up the Foley scandal.

Around midnight on Monday night, Rogers posted an e-mail he'd sent to senior staff members of the House Ethics Committee, alleging that two senior House staffers are gay. "I respectfully request you to investigate these two men," he wrote. "They have good personal reasons for perhaps being involved in this outrageous Foley scandal and cover up." (After commenters on his blog pointed out that one of the men no longer worked in the House, Rogers acknowledged his mistake -- but left the name up.) Over the next several weeks, Rogers says, he will regularly release the names of important people on the Hill he calls hypocrites -- closeted gays who push antigay policies or work for antigay politicians. He'll mostly be outing congressional staffers, he says, but he may name two members of Congress as well. And he'll be asking the House Ethics Committee to investigate everyone he names and what role they may have played in helping to cover up evidence about former Rep. Foley's relations with House pages. Rogers wants that investigation to include Foley aide Kirk Fordham and former Clerk of the House (and ex-GOP staffer) Jeff Trandahl, two gay men who by most accounts were involved in the House leadership's 2005 confrontation with Foley, as well as the other staffers he named Monday and those he says he'll name in the future.

The ethics of a gay rights advocate trying to blame gays for the Foley scandal -- when, in fact, it may be gay Republicans who finally stopped Foley's predation -- don't trouble Rogers.

"Unfortunately, because of the destructive nature of the closet, I have no idea how far-reaching this may or may not be," says Rogers, referring to rumors that gays protected Foley. "And at this point, to do anything other than to report the names of as many antigay closeted officials to the committee as I can, I don't know what else to do. These people clearly could be in on the whole thing. We have no idea, and they need to be investigated." Rogers denies that he is responsible for circulating the list Corn blogged about, even though he hosts it in the left column of his own blog.

Rogers insists that outing closeted GOP gays is justified because under George W. Bush the Republican Party has courted conservative Christians who are hostile to gay rights, even though some Republican politicians, including conservatives who support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, employ staffers whom they know to be gay. Similar rationales have been used to defend earlier outing campaigns -- most notably journalist Michelangelo Signorile's outing of Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams and other closeted gays in the late '80s and early '90s, and Rogers' earlier 2004 crusade against gay Bush backers.

But not everyone agrees with the tactic this time around. Two years ago, Americablog founder John Aravosis vocally supported Rogers' outing campaign, even assisted him with it. This time Aravosis won't be helping. Aravosis is offended that the idea of a gay network protecting Foley is being floated, whether by the right or by the left, noting that the idea would be considered bigotry if anyone other than gay people were involved.

"The concern people have had all week is that the religious right and the media would try to turn this into a gay story, and it's happened," Aravosis said. "All of a sudden we're talking about pedophiles, so now let's talk about gays. When Jack Abramoff came up, we didn't have a discussion about rich Jews. That would have been considered poor form; actually, it would have been bigoted."

Rogers says he's not worried about any negative effects, either on gays generally or on the gays targeted by his outing campaign. "I think it's to the movement's benefit to expose people who are antigay and hypocrites," Rogers says. "Ultimately, what it shows is that these men were so afraid of being honest about who they were that they helped to facilitate the immoral, unethical and possibly illegal activities of Mark Foley."

Whether Rogers' campaign will trigger a GOP civil war between socially tolerant Republicans and the strongly antigay Christian right is an open question. Conservative activists and two gay former GOP staffers contacted by Salon had mixed takes on that. What's clear is that the Foley scandal has focused attention on several gay Republicans besides Foley who played a role in the case, most notably Fordham and Trandahl. Both were known to be gay within the Washington political world, but not outside it. Neither was fully out, if "out" entails an unequivocal public confirmation of one's orientation.

Kirk Fordham, who is Foley's former chief of staff and who has been accused of trying to broker a deal with ABC News to keep Foley's lurid instant messages out of the news, told the Washington Blade, a local gay paper, that he was "out in the community but not in the press."

Salon was not able to find any instance of Trandahl, the former clerk of the House, publicly identifying himself as gay. Trandahl, who reportedly confronted Foley about e-mails between the former congressman and one former page, has publicly associated himself with gay causes: He was a longtime volunteer for AIDS charities in Washington; was on a committee for a 2001 inaugural breakfast given by the Republican Unity Coalition, an organization for gay Republicans; and is on the board of the Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation's most prominent gay-rights groups. In 2000, he contributed $1,200 to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports publicly gay candidates of both parties across the nation.

The Houston Voice, a gay publication in Texas, identified Trandahl as gay on Oct. 4. Still, it was not until this past weekend that the Washington Post became the first mainstream media outlet to report Trandahl's sexual orientation. The Post stated that Trandahl was "openly gay" without providing evidence, such as a quote from Trandahl or any family member or friend. The New York Times followed with a similar statement on Sunday.

According to the two gay former GOP staffers interviewed by Salon, Trandahl and Fordham are not alone. There are other gay Republican staffers, and their default stance in the Bush era is a more relaxed version of the military's policy of "Don't ask, don't tell." Both staffers say homosexuality wasn't an issue for the members of Congress for whom they worked.

"My employer was very supportive and was very direct with me," says one of the staffers, who was named on Rogers' 2004 list. "He said, 'I've never cared about that issue; all I care about is that you do your job well, and you do your job well, and that's how you're going to be judged by me.'"

A former senior Republican Hill staffer -- who says he believes Rogers "deserves a special circle in hell" -- reports a similar experience.

"When [my boss] found out about me, we never had a direct conversation about it, but I knew his attitudes about it ... And I know that when he did find out, his exact quote was, 'Yeah, so what? He did a damn good job.'"

The two staffers are divided as to whether the role of gay staffers in the Foley scandal will hurt the GOP with its conservative base. Rogers' former target believes there will be no appreciable effect on conservative turnout in November.

"I might be naive, [but] I just don't think that in today's world this is the issue that it once might have been," he says. "There are certainly a lot of people who would have concerns and who might be quick to, I guess, be negative, but I do think most people think the issue through. It's not like you're a person with your name on the ballot. Staffers don't vote -- congressmen do."

But the other gay ex-staffer contacted by Salon thinks the news of gay GOP staffers may push social conservatives away from the party.

"This may be the beginning of a reflection, on the part of the Christian right, that they have not accomplished what their goals were in trying to use the Republican Party as a vessel for advancing their ideology ... I think ultimately what you may see is more and more [that] the Christian right is going to start moving away from the party and heading back to other ways of proselytizing."

Other conservatives contacted by Salon were likewise divided on the question of whether Foleygate will hurt the GOP in November. So far, there's little evidence that mainstream conservative organizations are paying attention to the effort to out gays involved in the scandal. Of the organizations Corn listed as having received the list of alleged gay staffers, only Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition responded to a request for comment by Salon. Both denied having received the list. Over the weekend, Focus on the Family's James Dobson was widely quoted as alleging that Foley's online interactions with young male pages was "sort of a joke by the boy and some of the other pages." But the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins told CNN Monday night he believes this is the natural result of having gays on Capitol Hill: "This is what you get," he said "... congressmen chasing boys in the halls of Congress."

Signs that Republicans may be having trouble energizing their base were beginning to show even before the Foley scandal broke. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center showed a 21 percent loss in white evangelical support for Republicans over the past two years and, over the past year, a 9 percent drop in the number of white evangelicals who view the Republican Party favorably. And a poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News and released Tuesday showed that the Foley scandal made 21 percent of those surveyed more likely to vote Democratic and 5 percent more likely to not vote at all; only 3 percent said the scandal made them more likely to vote Republican.

But even some conservatives who've taken the scandal seriously insist it won't matter in November. "I don't see that it's relevant to the election," insists Richard Viguerie, a longtime conservative activist who has called for Speaker Dennis Hastert to resign because of his inaction when he received word of Foley's inappropriate attention to pages. "We all know that there's a certain percent of homosexuals who are Republicans and Democrats. They work on the Hill. We all know that. I don't think that's going to resonate or have any particular legs out there."

But Jay Glover, president of the Family Policy Network, a conservative Christian organization, does profess to be disappointed in the Republicans, and points to revelations about the role of gays in the party as an element of that dissatisfaction. "It'd be the same way on the flip side," says Glover. "If a person was a fundamentalist Christian and they were hired by Bill Clinton to be chief of staff, the Human Rights Campaign, NARAL and friends and the NOW gang would be having kittens, because they would say clearly this means he would be hostile to things we believe in. You cannot separate a person's moral philosophy from their political philosophy."

Glover believes conservative disillusionment is already evident in Pennsylvania, where Sen. Rick Santorum has been floundering in his race for reelection. Rogers outed Robert Traynham, Santorum's director of communications, in 2004. Traynham made a statement confirming his homosexuality, and Santorum issued his own statement supporting Traynham. Glover insists one of the reasons Santorum is likely about to lose his Senate seat is because he continues to employ a gay man, and the news has filtered out to his core demographic. "He's hurt his own base," Glover says.

On CNN's "Anderson Cooper" show Monday night, writer Andrew Sullivan -- who is openly gay -- struck a similar note. "I think within the Republican Party there is a problem," he said. "They have plenty of gay people in their ranks. They privately tolerate them ... And yet they play an antigay message at the base. And that's what's behind this particular problem. You can't send one -- give one face to Washington and another face to the base. And the people at the base realize they've been kind of lied to about the subject."

Viguerie disagrees. "I don't think the voters are going to hold that against Santorum," he says. "My gosh, sounds like he, you know, is a pretty reasonable fellow if he has a known homosexual on his staff, he's tolerant. [And] I don't think anybody's ever accused Rick Santorum of not being supportive of any issues in the same-sex-marriage area."

Rogers, who acknowledges that he is a Democrat, denies any partisan motives, saying that if his efforts focus on Republicans, it is because that's the side of the aisle the people who are closeted and antigay are on. Still, he says, "I find it absolutely sweet that what will topple this government, apparently, is the exposing of a slew of antigay closet cases."

But, he says, he won't be outing gay politicians and staffers indiscriminately. "I'm not interested in outing gay people," Rogers says. "I have no interest in any way, shape or form in outing any gay people. I have a huge interest, however, in reporting on hypocrites who are themselves gay and hurting the gay community." He mentions a staffer in a senior position for a Republican congressman as an example of someone he won't out because, he says, he believes that staffer isn't being hypocritical but is working within the party to try to change Republicans' stances on gay rights.

This has long been the standard for outing adhered to by gay activists; it's commonly referred to as the "Barney Frank rule," named after the Massachusetts Democrat who started his political career in the closet. Under the "Frank rule," it's acceptable to out those who, unlike Frank, are working against the perceived interests of gay people while in the closet.

Of course, that rule gives a lot of latitude to individuals like Rogers to decide which closeted Republicans are "working within the party" to advance gay rights and which are hypocrites. The personal injury to the gay Republicans being not only outed but blamed for the Foley scandal doesn't appear to have factored into anyone's political equation. But no one interviewed by Salon expected the fallout from Foleygate to include a wholesale GOP purge of gays.

"There may be isolated incidents where they do [fire gay staffers] depending on what the relevant individual circumstances are," says one of the former Hill Republican staffers, "but I genuinely believe that 2004 was the high-water mark for the Christian conservative role in the Republican Party. Since that time, we've seen a backing away from that, certainly on the part of, probably, both sides."

That former staffer believes the party must now reassess just how far it's willing to go to please its base.

"Most Christian conservative groups are looking for ideological purity," he explains. "You build a political party by expanding it, not by contracting it, and [Republicans'] continued appeals to conservative Christians and that element of the party are only going to last and only going to work for so long.

"Ultimately you're going to push so many people away that that's all you have left, a theocratic party. And if I sound like I'm being pretty critical of the Republican Party, I am, because it's something that they're going to have to realize. They're going to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century one way or another."

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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