Saturday, September 01, 2007

Hypocrisy in America

When Karl Rove resigned I made a remark about Republican homophobia that drew a hostile comment. This week Republican homophobia is in the news again—and the morning papers say that it will claim its next victim, a Republican Senator, by the end of the day. Republican hypocrisy is, of course, a source of satisfaction to any good Democrat like myself, but I still find this episode more depressing than satisfying, and it proves at several levels how far we have to go.

In the wake of the revelation of Larry Craig’s arrest and guilty plea for suggestive (though not overtly obscene) actions in a Minneapolis airport rest room, one of his local newspapers published an article indicating a long history of rumors, accusations, and even unsolicited denials, going back to another Congressional page scandal (of which I had no memory at all) in the early 1980s. Craig, in fact, got married for the first time, when in his early forties, in the wake of that scandal. Whether Craig is gay—or perhaps I should say, how gay he is—I have no idea. Some evidence suggests that whole issue is more complicated than a lot of us think. Not long ago I saw an extraordinary documentary about a North Carolina murder case, The Staircase, in which an extremely intelligent gay male prostitute testified that the vast majority of his clients, he thought, were basically heterosexual, but felt an occasional need for a man. I’m sure such people have a difficult time balancing everything out, but I’m not about to condemn them just because I’ve been a hopeless heterosexual for my whole life.

In any case, Craig seems to have had impulses he could only pursue furtively. What I speculated a few weeks ago, in effect, was that his whole-nine-yards conservative Republicanism might be a defense against those impulses, a frantic attempt to repudiate unacceptable parts of himself. Certainly the Reverend Ted Haggard seems to have been in that predicament as well. It makes me sad that people are driven to such denial, but it makes me very angry that their problems have become our problems through the mechanism of the political realm. Not content with suppressing whatever nasty impulses they might have, “conservatives” are determined to suppress them in everyone else, too—and that right, as the Supreme Court has fortunately recognized, they do not have.

Craig’s arrest is a consequence of various kinds of homophobia. I was stunned, perhaps naively, that gay men are still trolling in public restrooms. Gays, like straights, can now troll in bars, on the net, or in the ads in their local alternative newspaper without having to fear offending a totally unwilling target—but not, of course, if they feel they absolutely have to conceal their impulses. But I was even more stunned that the Minneapolis police are still detailing officers to catch them doing it. Craig’s tactics were certainly quite discreet. I don’t think I would have recognized them for what they apparently were had it been me in the next stall. But the officers knew what to look for, and made an arrest. Actually had I been Craig’s attorney (and I’m not an attorney), I would have been tempted to tell him to fight the case. The state would have had a hell of a time proving that tapping his foot meant that he wanted sex. The point, of course, was that the kind of man who still finds it necessary to seek sex in that manner would be much too frightened to do anything but plead guilty—as Craig was. He didn’t even dare consult a lawyer—because, perhaps, he accepted the view of some of his fellow conservative Republicans that gays are beyond the pale in American society.

For the past forty years the United States has been trying to grow up with respect to issues of private sexual behavior. We have made only uneven progress. Millions of gays do live uncloseted lives, which is a good thing. But this has provoked an extraordinary backlash without parallel in any other western country, and in political life, although divorce is now accepted (especially, it would seem, among Republican presidential candidates), any extramarital indiscretion is, literally, news. Europeans cannot understand this attitude. This morning I read that some people are complaining that while Craig is about to resign, his colleague David Vitter, who had to admit patronizing a New Orleans brothel, has not. I’m sorry, frankly, that either of them might—just as I was appalled (and I said so in print at the time) that Bill Clinton was dumb enough to answer questions about his private sexual behavior under oath.

The contrast between our views of public and private transgressions is most depressing as well. We can’t take any action against officials who subvert the constitution or corrupt the political process through the Justice Department, it seems, but we can drive any closeted gay out of public life. It reminds me of one of my favorite episodes in American history, the election of 1884, in which reformer Democrat Grover Cleveland was favored to beat machine Republican James G. Blaine, who had had to admit taking a bribe to influence legislation. Then, after Cleveland’s nomination, it turned out the lifelong bachelor might have fathered an illegitimate child years before. His candidacy seemed doomed until a supporter suggested a sensible solution to the country’s dilemma: let Blaine, whose private life was exemplary, be returned to private life, while Cleveland, whose public life was spotless, reached the summit of our public life. The country, by a narrow margin, agreed. Would it today?


Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Good grief. The "Lavatory Larry" video is on the front page of Milan's Corriere della Sera.

The baseball cap on his unruly hair is, um, strange.

BTW, I seem to recall the Congressional sex scandal of the 80s. Bathroom sex in the Capitol restrooms.

Anonymous said...

That video is a re-enactment produced by Countdown.