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Investigating "the congressional closet"

Congressman Jim Kolbe

In September 1996 The Advocate ran a story titled "On the record," which has been repeatedly cited as the deliberate outing of congressmen Jim Kolbe and Mark Foley. Decide for yourself. Here's the original text of that now infamous investigation.

By J. Jennings Moss

An Advocate.com exclusive posted October 10, 2006


On the record

Heated debate over House approval of the antigay Defense of Marriage Act shines a wary spotlight on the congressional closet.

They spoke to their colleagues—and the nation—from experience. They argued that by passing a bill that defines marriage strictly as a union between a man and a woman, the House was trampling on the civil rights of gays and lesbians. They were talking about their own rights as gay men. And everybody knew it.

Steve Gunderson, Barney Frank, and Gerry Studds made their status as gay men relevant to the debate that took place in July. Arguably, the marital status and sexual orientation of every member of Congress was at issue when the House voted 342–67 to approve the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a bill that would allow states to avoid recognizing same-sex marriages granted in other states. (Hawaii could be the first to legalize such unions.)

Reporters quizzed Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican and a chief sponsor of the bill, about his three marriages. But they stayed away from approaching lawmakers long thought by many to be gay to ask why they voted the way they did. Gay rights activists, however—including many who abhor the practice of outing—argued that given the current climate and an issue as crucial and controversial as gay marriage, such questions were fair.

"If it's relevant to the issue, why not ask?" said Mindy A. Daniels, founder and executive director of the National Lesbian Political Action Committee. Or as Torie Osborn, former head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, put it: "Anything's a fair line of inquiry that's involving a public debate about morality and politics."

However, gay opinion makers were far from consensus on the issue. Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who disclosed his sexual orientation in 1987, was among those who expressed reservations. While Frank had threatened to out closeted House Republicans if the GOP tried to reinstate sexual orientation as a reason to deny someone government security clearance and while he conceded that gay marriage opens the door to asking lawmakers questions about sexual orientation, he argued that boundaries remain. "If you're not a hypocrite or misleading people," he said, "you have the right to be quiet about [being gay]."

The Advocate has a policy against outing, which the magazine defines as "the initial disclosure in a public medium or forum of someone's sexual orientation without his or her permission." For this story The Advocate followed up on prior reports in other media and on the Internet about closeted lawmakers where their names were mentioned. If these reports could be independently verified—that is, if at least three sources with professional or personal relationships with a lawmaker said they considered the lawmaker to be gay—the next step was to approach the lawmaker in question. They were verified, and The Advocate contacted Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona and Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, both Republicans, to ask them to explain their votes in favor of DOMA as well as to talk about their sexual orientation.

Both men objected to the latter line of questioning. "Even members of Congress should be allowed to have personal lives," Kolbe, 54, said in a telephone interview. "The issue of my sexuality has nothing to do with the votes I cast in Congress or my work for the constituents of Arizona's fifth congressional district." Upon reflection, however, Kolbe decided to come out soon after talking to The Advocate, saying the magazine's questioning of him was a chief factor. Foley, in written answers to The Advocate's questions, stated his belief that "a lawmaker's sexual orientation is...irrelevant."

But while Kolbe and Foley told The Advocate that a member of Congress's sexual orientation should not be an issue, activists were saying otherwise. Michael Petrelis—who gained notoriety for throwing a drink on Gunderson at a gay bar in 1991 and then publicizing the incident in an attempt to force the congressman to come out—used his computer to raise questions about several lawmakers he said were in the closet. Petrelis sent his own reports or forwarded others to a mailing list that included more than 100 activists, writers, and publications.

Shortly afterward a gay broadcast journalist in New England, Kurt Wolfe, discussed both Kolbe's and Foley's sexual orientation publicly. In late July, in a story on the congressional closet, Wolfe reported on WBAI radio in New York and on the cable television program Out in New England that Kolbe is gay. In a follow-up report August 8 on his television show, Wolfe also reported that Foley is gay.

In the past both Kolbe and Foley probably would not have experienced the kind of scrutiny now thrust upon them. Activists used the standard that if a lawmaker or senior government official acted in a hypocritical way and was actually gay, then he or she was fair game for outing. What changed the rules for some activists was the gay-marriage issue. Gays and lesbians shuddered when Republicans introduced DOMA, threatened to rebel when President Clinton backed it, and demanded accountability when the House passed it. All eyes now are on the Senate, which is expected to take up the measure in September.

Apart from their controversial votes on DOMA, however, Kolbe and Foley are two of the most pro-gay Republicans in the House. They have voted consistently in the minority of their party to support gay rights and efforts to fight AIDS. Both signed pledges saying that their congressional offices would not discriminate based on sexual orientation, and Kolbe is cosponsor of a bill to outlaw antigay discrimination in the workplace.

Among those who were particularly pained by the House debate on gay marriage was Tracy Thorne, a former Navy lieutenant who made history in 1992 when he disclosed his homosexuality on national television. Thorne's family lives in Foley's district and has helped Foley in his political career. While Thorne said he respected the rights of people who choose to remain in the closet, he said a different standard applies to people who hold positions of power: "What I cannot respect or tolerate is one who makes that choice and then, in the name of self-promotion, climbs on the very backs of those who need help the most."

Both Kolbe and Foley defended their votes in favor of DOMA. Kolbe said he backed the measure because he wanted to preserve a state's right to decide whether to accept gay marriages. He noted that he had also backed an effort to conduct a government study about the legal problems same-sex couples face. Foley criticized those who used the debate to "bash" gays and lesbians but added that "there were many people who voted for this legislation—myself included—because they have genuine reservations about tampering with an institution many Americans regard as sacred."

As to how their personal lives influenced their votes, neither man offered explanations. "That I am a gay person has never affected the way that I legislate," Kolbe said in a written statement in which he came out to his constituents on August 1. "I am the same person, one who has spent many years struggling to relieve the tax burden for families, balance the budget for our children's future, and improve the quality of life we cherish in southern Arizona."

Coming out was a relatively short step for Kolbe, a six-term lawmaker from Tucson who four years ago ran against an openly gay Democrat and who was arguably the most open closeted member of Congress. He held parties at his home attended by such prominent gay men in Washington as Rich Tafel of the national gay group Log Cabin Republicans and Daniel Zingale, political director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay lobbying organization, according to guests who attended the events. He occasionally visited Trumpets, a gay bar in Washington.

For Foley, questions about his sexual orientation first surfaced publicly when he ran for the House of Representatives in 1994. His conservative primary opponent John Anastasio implied that Foley was gay, but the strategy received little attention, and Foley won the primary with 61% of the vote. In interviews for this story, several people close to the 41-year-old representative from West Palm Beach said they knew him as a gay man, although one also said he dated women.

"Frankly, I don't think what kind of personal relationships I have in my private life is of any relevance to anyone else," Foley said without defining how he characterizes himself. "I know one thing for certain: When I travel around the district every weekend, the people who attend my town meetings and stop me on the street corner certainly are a lot more concerned with issues like how I voted on welfare reform or whether or not Medicare is going to be there when they need it—not the details of whom I choose to have a relationship with."

The very thought of a return to outing angered some gay political operatives. "I don't think it's ever appropriate," said Zingale. Even though a vote for DOMA was a "disgrace and a moral failure," Zingale said, the vote was not grounds for outing. Mark Agrast, legislative aide to Representative Studds, said he could "think of many circumstances when outing is a great temptation but none in which is morally acceptable. It is a form of psychological terror."

Others tried to turn the spotlight on the congressional closet without naming names. "To all closeted gay and lesbian members of Congress," read a full-page ad in the July 26 issue of The Washington Blade, a gay weekly. "We call upon you to end your silence and defend your community in this time of unprecedented hostility."

Said Joel Lawson, a former staffer on Capitol Hill who helped create the ad: "Someone has got to call them on this. There is no excuse for their vote. They might lose an election. They might not be as popular as they were. But these are tough times, and courage is never easy or risk-free."

Some of the 29 people who signed the ad, like Jeff Coudriet, a congressional staffer and president of Washington, D.C.'s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, said they fully supported outing. "I think we are at war up here," said Coudriet, "and if you hold back some of your troops, you're colluding with the enemy."

William Waybourn, managing director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and a signatory of the ad, said that while he is opposed to activists' outing people, he believes the press has a different responsibility. "There are no unfair questions for anyone in public life," Waybourn said. If lawmakers go to gay events, patronize gay businesses, live in a gay environment, but vote in an antigay way, Waybourn believes they should be called on it. "They're asking to be outed," he said. "They're not leading a secret life. They're fooling themselves."

Reporters routinely ask Catholic lawmakers to justify votes in favor of abortion rights. They question African-American legislators who back an end to affirmative action. They ask small-business owners now in Congress to shed light on tax legislation that would benefit entrepreneurs. So scrutinizing closeted gay members about their voting records on gay and lesbian issues just seems to follow, Waybourn said.

Other prominent gays and lesbians interviewed for this article agreed. "We're approaching a time when the closet is no longer respected," said Osborn. "Fifteen years ago the closet was OK, even for gay people. The closet used to stand for privacy. Now the closet stands for prison."

Daniels also argued that members of Congress have chosen to live by different standards than private citizens. "They put themselves out there as public figures," she said. "You're taking all your stuff with you, including your skeletons. If you're not ready for that, don't go out there."

|| Q & A ||


We told you so...10 years ago
Disgraced former congressman Mark Foley came out as a gay man on October 3 amid an Internet sex scandal. Journalist Kurt Wolfe says he gave Foley the opportunity 10 years ago.

By John Caldwell

An Advocate.com exclusive posted October 10, 2006



By the time journalist Kurt Wolfe was being cited by The Advocate for a now-infamous article about the congressional closet in summer 1996, he had already outed congressmen Mark Foley and Jim Kolbe on a New York City radio station, then on a cable-access television show he produced titled Out in New England. Using Wolfe as one of several credible sources, The Advocate contacted Kolbe and Foley, asking about their sexual orientation. Both men said it wasn’t relevant. Kolbe came out publicly within a week of Wolfe’s reports. Foley, who resigned on September 29 amid allegations that he made sexual advances toward underage male pages, did not.

Wolfe, 56, is now a freelance reporter in Georgia.

Why did you decide to out Foley and Kolbe?
We decided to look into the voting records of congressmen who had voted for the [1996] Defense of Marriage Act and see if we could find out who was gay and closeted. We weren’t in the business of outing. For us it was an issue of hypocrisy. We needed three independent sources. We were able to get those on Foley.

What kind of sources?

One of our sources for Foley had been a [congressional] page. He was an adult when I was speaking to him, but he was a minor when he was a page. He told me that he had been the recipient of many inappropriate sexual communications from Foley. That changed the whole story. I contacted [Foley’s] offices for comment. I told them that we were running the story and that one of our sources was a former male page. The response was pretty nasty and ended with a hang-up. Now the angle is now “who knew what, when.” I can’t [attest] to the current [GOP] leadership [knowledge], but I can [attest] to Foley’s staff. They were notified.


The story you ran was on Foley’s homosexuality and his DOMA vote, not on the page. Why?
I couldn’t get another source to substantiate it, and this young man would not come forward. He was terrified. Had he been a minor when I spoke to him, I would have gone to the police. But he was an adult. I’m going to contact my local congressman and tell him that if they have a congressional hearing, I’m willing to testify under oath about this.

What happened after Kolbe came out?
I got a call from his press secretary about eight months later thanking us for the story. They wanted to let me know that everything was cool and that he had never been happier. To his great credit, Jim Kolbe did the right thing and his voting record changed.

Another congressman you investigated was antigay Louisiana Republican Jim McCrery, who was the subject of a 1992 Advocate cover story. How do you think the Foley story will affect other closeted members of Congress?
I think closeted gay people in Congress are looking at [the Foley scandal] to see what happens. And it’s going to really hit the fan if they were involved in the kind of behavior that Foley was involved in.

Do you have any regrets about outing people?

Yes, my inability to get the nongay press to pay attention. I really got blasted for outing these congressman. We weren’t outing them as gay; we were outing them as hypocrites. Either people thought it was sensational or they were pissed off. Most of the people who were angry at me were gay. I’m still angry that we couldn’t get people interested in this.

NOVEMBER 2006 Nationwide Results



News ||

November 17, 2006


Numbers show gays may have handed Democrats the Senate

Remember how some Democrats blamed LGBT people's push for marriage equality for the 2004 election results? Perhaps gays are now owed an apology.

The effort to defeat Virginia's proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage apparently pulled thousands of progressive voters out to the polls, sending Democrat James Webb to the U.S. Senate by the thinnest of margins and handing the upper chamber to the Democrats for the next two years. A 10-to-1 spending edge by gays and their allies depressed the final majority in favor of the amendment to 57%, a far cry from the 75% support that has typified amendment election results in the past.

A glance at the six most populous left-of-center counties and urban areas tells the story. Roughly 588,000 people voted on the marriage amendment in these regions, with nearly 60%, or about 350,000, people voting no. The other two relatively uncontroversial ballot measures passed handily. But they passed without

the participation of roughly 25,000 voters who weighed in on the marriage amendment but took no stand on the other questions one way or another.

Did those voters also vote for James Webb? It appears they did. Webb won the six regions 64%–36%, taking 377,000 out of 593,000 Senate votes cast in these locations.

Statewide, Webb beat incumbent George Allen 1,175,606 to 1,166,277, a difference of fewer than 10,000 votes. (Ann Rostow, The Advocate)

Advocate election returns

November 7, 2006: Check here for up-to-the-minute returns to selected elections and ballot questions important to gays and lesbians across the country.

An Advocate.com exclusive posted November 7, 2006

Election returns for selected races and referendums as of 12:26 p.m. Wednesday EST: Nov. 8th

U.S. House of Representatives

Massachusetts, 4th congressional district

Barney Frank (gay/Democratic incumbent)

(Running unopposed)

Wisconsin, 2nd congressional district

Tammy Baldwin (gay/Democratic incumbent): 63%

David Magnum (Republican challenger): 37%

(100% of precincts reporting)



California, 27th congressional district

Peter Hankwitz (gay/Republican challenger): 31%

Brad Sherman (Democrat): 69%

(100% of precincts reporting)  



California, 52nd congressional district

John Rinaldi (gay/Democratic challenger): 31%

Duncan Hunter (Republican): 66%

(82% of precincts reporting)


Ohio, 1st congressional district

John Cranley (Democratic challenger): 47%

Steve Chabot (Republican incumbent): 53%

(100% of precincts reporting)


Minnesota, 6th congressional district

Patty Wetterling (Democrat): 42%

Michele Bachmann (Republican): 50%

(97% of precincts reporting)  



Colorado, 4th congressional district

Marilyn Musgrave (Republican incumbent): 46%

Angie Paccione (Democratic challenger): 43%

(99% of precincts reporting)



U.S. Senate

Pennsylvania

Bob Casey Jr. (Democratic challenger): 59%

Rick Santorum (Republican incumbent): 41% ( outspoken anti-gay marriage conservative )

(99% of precincts reporting)



Gubernatorial

California

Phil Angelides (Democratic challenger): 39%

Arnold Schwarzenegger (Republican incumbent): 56%

(93% of precincts reporting)



New York

Eliot Spitzer (Democrat): 69%

John Faso (Republican): 29%

(99% of precincts reporting)



Massachusetts

Deval Patrick (Democrat): 56% (1st African American elected governor of this state )


Kerry Healey (Republican): 35%
(100% of precincts reporting)

Illinois

Rod Blagojevich (Democrat): 49%

Judy Baar Topinka (Republican): 40%

(98% of precincts reporting)



Prosposed state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage and, in some instances, all legal recognition of unmarried couples

YES” result means voters in that state decided against legalizing gay marriage.



Arizona, Proposition 107

Yes: 49%

No: 51%

(99% of precincts reporting)  



Colorado, Amendment 43

Yes: 56%

No: 44%

(88% of precincts reporting)



Idaho, Amendment 2

Yes: 63%

No: 37%

(92% of precincts reporting)  



South Carolina, Amendment 1

Yes: 78%

No: 22%

(99% of precincts reporting)  



South Dakota, Amendment C

Yes: 52%

No: 48%

(100% precincts reporting)


Tennessee, Amendment 1

Yes: 81%

No: 19%

(99% of precincts reporting)


Virginia, Amendment 1

Yes: 57% No: 43%

(99% of precincts reporting)

Wisconsin, Question 1

Yes: 59%

No: 41%

(99% precincts reporting)



State referendums that would provide legal recognition to same-sex couples

Colorado, Referendum I: Domestic Partnership

Yes: 47%

No: 53%

(88% of precincts reporting)

|| Commentary || ON GAY MARRIAGE QUESTION

BY FORMER GAY GOVERNOR

Stumping for marriage in New Jersey
The New Jersey supreme court did the right thing at the right time. Now it's up to us to stop worrying about the election and demand full marriage equality.

By James McGreevey

An Advocate.com exclusive posted November 7, 2006

The New Jersey supreme court decision was an important step in the right direction toward recognizing marital equality for our community. Having previously supported pro-gay legislation in matters of adoption and child care, the court understood that a simple question was before it: Namely, should gay New Jerseyans be afforded the right to marry (with its attendant privileges, rights, and obligations) just as straight Americans are?

The court claimed the responsibility to ensure that committed gay couples receive a legal mechanism identical to marriage, but stated that it was for the state legislature and governor to decide if marriage as a term of art would be used.

Marriage as an institution, word, and symbol is inextricably linked to the concept of a committed, monogamous relationship. Among our most cherished national institutions, marriage, at its best, conjures ideas of warmth, love, and nurturing. Marriage ought to be enshrined in legislation for our gay community.

To use any word other than marriage for committed, monogamous gay relationships implies that our status, whether single or committed, is something less than that of straight people and their relationships. Words and rhetoric are critically important in denoting meaning and for imparting notions of societal worth.

We must work toward the use of the word marriage in state legislation. Justice Barry Albin, who wrote the opinion, is a brilliant jurist whom I had the honor of appointing years ago. My hope is that the gay rights group Garden State Equality, ably led by Steven Goldstein, will be able to marshal the necessary support to secure marriage as a right and a name.

Some progressives have worried about the timing of the court's decision, coming right before an important election. But the unequivocally right thing about this victory is the timing of its announcement. It was not political. The state supreme court announced the decision because of the mandatory resignation date of the chief justice, not because of an election. It would have been wrong and injurious to the state supreme court's reputation to hold the decision until after the election, or to announce it prior, because of electoral concerns.

The court's decision will have de minimis impact upon New Jersey's U.S. Senate election. The war in Iraq, stem cell research, a woman's right to choose, and U.S. Supreme Court nominees will all play a more prominent role than the court's "gay marriage" decision in the calculus of New Jersey voters.

The New Jersey supreme court rephrased the debate over same-sex marriage as a question of equality. It will be our responsibility to frame it as a matter of conscience.


Entertainment News : Media & Community

November 17, 2006



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