It doesn't take much for Americans to get on their high horse about homosexuals. The most recent pony ride comes amid the revelation that Idaho Senator Larry Craig was arrested in June following a game of footsie with an undercover cop in a men's room at a Minneapolis airport. According to the dizzying array of "experts" who have flooded the airwaves in the past week--almost none of whom, I might add, are gay--such foot-rubbing is evidently standard foreplay to bathroom buggery. Who knew?
The Craig controversy, which has led to his resignation from the Senate, is only the most recent in a series of sex-related scandals involving Republicans who consider themselves "social values conservatives." Last September Florida Congressman Mark Foley resigned after allegations surfaced that he had sent sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages to teenage pages. On the Saturday before the midterm elections, the Rev. Ted Haggard--named as one of the nation's "25 most influential evangelicals" in a 2005 Time cover story--stepped down as head of his 14,000-member mega-church after a gay prostitute claimed the pastor had repeatedly solicited him for sex and drugs.
Sex and sexuality figure prominently in modern American politics. From Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings to Bill Clinton's impeachment proceedings, much of the current political landscape--from right to left--has been shaped by public battles over private matters.
But the recent scandals involving Foley, Haggard and Craig are different for at least two reasons: First, they involve alleged homosexual acts vigorously denied by the accused; and second, they resulted in public shaming and professional resignation.
By contrast, consider the recent case of Louisiana Senator David Vitter, who issued a public apology in July after news broke that his phone number was on the "call list" of a multimillion-dollar escort service in Washington, DC. This is not the first time such allegations have been leveled against him; during his 2004 Senate campaign, Vitter was accused--by the Republican Louisiana State Committee, no less--of having had an ongoing affair with a female prostitute in New Orleans. Still, Vitter remains in office, a proud supporter of "mainstream conservative principles," according to his Senate website.
There is an interesting lesson here: If you're going to be a hypocrite, it pays to be a straight hypocrite. Just ask Rudy Giuliani.
But when it comes to Republican infidelity and sex scandals, conservatives like to dance around the charge of hypocrisy. On a recent Larry King Live panel, Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus had this reaction to the Craig resignation: "And if some people want to say he's a hypocrite, fine. If he is gay and still wants to keep...marriage as it is traditionally between a man and a woman, I don't think that makes him a hypocrite. And a lot of people are passing judgment, I think is rather unfair." Sensing, perhaps, that her logic was unclear, Jacobus added this tired refrain: "I'm sorry, but the king of all of this and the king of taking the sexual risks and getting the thrill from that [is] Bill Clinton.... As Republicans, we don't want to put the country through what Bill Clinton put the country through." This is textbook GOP strategy: Downplay the hypocrisy of right-wing politics by invoking both Bill Clinton's infidelity and Republicans' commitment to the sanctity of marriage. Forget that it was Craig--one of Clinton's most sanctimonious detractors--who famously called the former President "a nasty, bad, naughty boy."
Republicans can dance around the issue as much as they want, but their hypocrisy is clear. The rise of the modern Republican Party--the party of Reagan, not Lincoln--is due to the success of its persistent appeal to so-called "values voters," specifically, those who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage. In the last two election cycles, the GOP's destiny has been closely linked to homosexuality and the hysteria it inspires. Whereas George W. Bush's 2004 victory was energized by his cynical endorsement of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as "between a man and a woman" and the subsequent outpouring of evangelical voters energized by statewide ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage, Democratic success in 2006 can be seen, in part, as a reaction to the Foley and Haggard scandals. It seems the only thing worse than gay marriage is a gay hooker.
Social values conservatives like to talk about "loving the sinner and hating the sin." But actions speak louder than words. The Republican Party, after a generation of pandering to its Christian evangelical "base," is very clear about its "values" when it comes to the lives of gay and lesbian people: They oppose our right to raise children, to live in safety, to work in peace, to serve our country and to marry our loved ones. In other words, they seek to deny us the fundamental rights of American citizenship. When it comes to standing with us or against us, they are very much against us.
This explains the hysteria that erupts every time the GOP's leading men are caught with their pants down with other men. But the real problem is not so much hypocrisy as hatred. The modern-day Republican Party hates homosexuals because so-called born-again Christians think homosexuality is a sin--more so than, say, poverty or war. But when it comes to people like Foley, Haggard and Craig, the tragedy is more personal than political: As gay men, they hate themselves even more than they hate the rest of us.
Timothy Patrick McCarthy teaches American history, literature and public policy at Harvard University. He is co-editor of The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition (New Press). He is also gay, and has always been gay.
© 2007 The Nation