Was I totally clueless? When I stepped forward in late 2005 to talk about anti-military attitudes at New York's Columbia University, I knew my past might be put under the microscope. We hear it every day; in the age of Google, when any stray personal factoid may be lodged somewhere on the Internet, it's impossible to have privacy. We have all done things we don't want advertised, and many of us may have identities we've outgrown, but the truth is, most of us haven't strayed far enough from the run-of-the-mill to rate more than a bit of whispered gossip from a snubbed co-worker. There are others of us, however, like me, who have the kinds of résumés that can keep everybody around the office water cooler smirking for days.
Let me back up a second, because most of you don't have a clue what I'm talking about. In September 2005, I wrote a column for the campus newspaper that blasted the anti-military bias among my fellow students at Columbia University. In addition to being an American studies major at Columbia, I am a Marine Corps reservist, and my comrades in arms were proud of me once that column had turned into appearances on "The O'Reilly Factor" and "Hannity & Colmes" and an opinion piece for the New York Post. None of those media outlets knew who I had been before I was a Marine, an Ivy Leaguer and an outspoken defender of the military.
Up until last weekend, Salon and the rest of the left-wing media had largely ignored me. Given the left's constant talk about equality, discrimination, minority rights and systemic oppression, I thought the fact that I was a Hispanic, a Marine, a nontraditional, 36-year-old Ivy League student and a 100 percent flag-waving red-blooded Reagan Republican would make my point of view interesting, but so be it. Everything is political now, and even the double standards have talking points.
Then came last weekend. I was invited to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, an annual convention of the right attended by more than 5,000 people, to accept the Jeanne Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award. It was recognition for what I'd said in print and on-air about anti-military attitudes on campus. During CPAC, I had my picture taken with the controversial conservative pundit and author Ann Coulter.
It was cold on Tuesday morning in Manhattan, and I was late for classes. I was a bit groggy from studying for my midterms and working full time at a marketing firm where I'd just made partner. I don't drink coffee, and in my morning haze, I didn't notice the messages piling up on my BlackBerry. Once I looked, I realized there was a lot of hate mail mixed in with the spam.
Several bloggers were posting pictures of me and Coulter together and noting, gleefully, that the guy with his arm around the waist of the woman who called Edwards a faggot had, once upon a time, acted in adult films.
Some of the sites were comparing me to Rich Merritt, a Marine Corps captain who appeared in gay films. Others were comparing me to Jeff Gannon and claiming that I too had advertised my services as a male escort. I won't deny it, or that I acted in several adult movies 15 years ago under names like Pierre LaBranche and Rod Majors.
We all have a tendency to want to hate the enemy. I suppose that's why Coulter gets applause when she uses terms like "faggot" or "ragheads" (was that the last Coulter scandal, or was it her comments about 9/11 widows?). I also suppose that's why I got so much abuse in my in box when gay and liberal bloggers posted ancient pictures of me.
I never imagined that I could become a "public figure" without facing scrutiny. And I sought attention. I'm the first to admit that I want to be heard, read and taken seriously. But some issues are complex, and some really are simple. People complain of a lack of depth in public discourse and the way complicated debates get compressed into meaningless sound bites. Well, porn is just ... porn. Self-explanatory and without depth. The pictures do the talking, and however many pictures there may be in video stores or warehouses or online, they still don't have anything interesting to say. I am concerned, though, that they may make some people feel inadequate. As a conservative, I like to insist on equal opportunity, even if some do start off with more than others.
Porn reduces the mind and flattens the soul. I don't like it. That's not hypocrisy talking; that's just experience. I sometimes think of myself, ironically, as a progressive: I started off as a liberal but I progressed to conservatism. Part of that transformation is due to my time in the industry. How does a conservative trace his roots to such distasteful beginnings? I didn't like porn's liberalism. In porn, everything taboo is trivialized and everything trivial is magnified.
Being in the adult entertainment industry was sort of like being in a cult, and like all followers of a cult, I have a difficult time figuring out when I stopped believing in the party line. I can tell you, though, that by the time I finished my brief tour of the major studios, I was pretty disgusted with myself. It was an emotional low, and the people who surrounded me were like drug dealers interested only in being with the anesthetized in order not to shake off the stupor of being high.
Why did I become a conservative? Just look at what I left, and look at who is attacking me today. Let's face it: Those on the left who now attack me would be defending me if I had espoused liberal causes and spoken out against the Iraq war before I was outed as a pseudo celebrity. They'd be talking about publishing my memoir and putting me on a diversity ticket with Barack Obama. Instead, those who complain about wire-tapping reserve the right to pry into my private life and my past for political brownie points.
Sure, I had my picture taken with Ann Coulter. I don't agree with what she said, but anyone in the military would defend her right to say it. I'm not apologizing for it. I'm also not going to claim I'm sorry for leaving a long-ago summer job off my curriculum vitae. A lot things in my life don't add up, but then I was never good at math. It's just a part of my past, and as anyone who reflects on the past realizes, it contributes to who I am today. No apologies, just recognition. No running away, just moving forward.
I learned a lot at CPAC. I saw Jeff Gannon. He seemed to be doing fine, despite the minor media scandal he endured. (When was that scandal anyway? It's hard to keep track, because so many come and go so rapidly.) Mostly I learned that I'm not as right-wing among the true believers as I feel in a place like New York, where people glibly promote diversity unless you don't agree with them. I also learned that there are many citizens in this country who are, as conservatives, just as passionate about the autonomy of the individual as I am, and just as committed to spreading the word. I accepted my award and spoke with great pride.
By the way, as a political minority on the Columbia campus, people are always asking me, "How can you be a conservative? They're so hateful." That wasn't the feeling I got when I accepted my award. And it's not what I've been hearing from the conservative community since my "outing."
I am embarrassed to admit that was I worried that my fellow conservatives would distance themselves from me when the news about my film career broke. The opposite has happened. I've been asked to give my point of view, invited to speak at various functions, and invited back on television. My peers on the right have gone out of their way to give me a vote of confidence and avoid a rush to judgment.
I appreciate the support. I am also not really that troubled by the abuse I've taken from the other side. Some conversations are worth having. By entering the public arena, with all the risk that entails, I feel I've already achieved a major victory. Columbia University is expanding its outreach to veterans and will build a memorial to alumni who have fallen in battle. Columbia veterans have fought in every conflict since the American Revolution. The rest of it is just a bunch of blips in the blogosphere.