Tough balance for gay GOP
By Mark Leibovich, New York Times
Article Launched:10/08/2006 03:25:09 AM EDT
Sunday, October 08
WASHINGTON — Every month or so, 10 top staff members from Capitol Hill meet over dinner to commiserate about their uneasy experience as gay Republicans.
In a wry reference to the "K Street Project," the party's campaign to build influence along the city's lobbying corridor, they privately call themselves the "P Street Project," a reference to a street cutting through a local gay enclave.
For many of those men and other gay Republicans in political Washington, reconciling their private lives and public roles has required a discreet, heads-down existence. But in the past week, the Mark Foley scandal has upset that careful balance.
Since Rep. Foley, R-Fla., resigned after sending sexually explicit electronic messages to a male page, gay Republicans in Washington have been under what one describes as "siege and suspicion."
Some conservative groups blamed the episode on the "gay lifestyle" and the gathering force of the "gay agenda." Others equated homosexuality with pedophilia, a false link that has long outraged gay men and lesbians.
Conservative blogs and Web sites pointed out that gay staff members played principal roles in investigating the Foley case, suggesting that the party was betrayed by gay men trying to hide misconduct by one of their own. Some gay activists even began circulating a document known as "The List," a roster of gay congressional staff members and their Republican bosses.
"You can see where it would be easy for some people to blame gays for something that might bring down the party in Congress," said Brian Bennett, a gay Republican political consultant. He was a longtime chief of staff to former Rep. Robert K. Dornan, R-Calif., who regularly referred to gays as "Sodomites."
"I'm just waiting for someone in a position of authority to make this a gay issue," Bennett said of the Foley incident.
The presence of homosexuals, particularly gay men, in key staff positions has been an enduring if largely hidden staple of Republican life for decades, and particularly in recent years. They have played decisive roles in passing legislation, running campaigns and advancing careers.
Known in some insider slang as "the Velvet Mafia" or "the Pink Elephants," gay Republicans tend to be less open about their sexual orientation than their Democratic counterparts.
As the blame from the Foley case has been parceled out in recent days, some Republican staff members worried that any gay men caught up in the scandal would be treated unfairly.
Kirk Fordham, Foley's one-time chief of staff who resigned Wednesday as an aide to Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-N.Y., and Jeff Trandahl, the former clerk of the House of Representatives, were among the first to learn of Foley's communications. Along with the Republican leadership, they have been criticized for failing to act more aggressively to stop the congressman's behavior, and possibly covering up for Foley. Some have suggested that the leadership's response to Foley was borne of a squeamishness in dealing with a so-called gay issue.
Fordham and Trandahl did not hide their homosexuality, and they were well-known in Washington's gay community. (Neither returned phone calls for comment.) Others strenuously protect their private life.
"You learn to compartmentalize really well," said one Republican strategist who, as with many gay Republicans interviewed for this article, would talk only anonymously for fear of adversely affecting his career.
'Hard to be a gay Republican'
One of the inevitable facts, said Bennett, the former aide to Dornan, is that "there are just going to be some days when it's hard to be a gay Republican."
When asked why he remains in the party, Bennett gave an answer common to gay Republicans: He said he remained fundamentally in sync with the small government principles of the party and was committed to changing what he considers its anti-gay attitudes.
"I'm fighting hard, every day," said Bennett, who was among a small group of gay Republicans who met with George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign.
Others point out that advancing the beliefs and careers of the boss is a priority in Washington, and staff members are expected to stay in the background. "Discretion is what most members expect from their staff, no matter who you are," said Tracey St. Pierre, who was chief of staff for former Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla.
"For many conservative Republicans, just being gay in itself is an act of indiscretion," said St. Pierre, who is gay but was not open about it until shortly before leaving Canady's office. When she worked with him in the mid-1990s, one of his chief causes was legislation that would ban same-sex marriage. St. Pierre, who works for a federal agency, considers herself an independent now.
The code of behavior largely extends to Republican politicians themselves, a point underscored by Foley, who only publicly acknowledged this week that he is gay. He appeared in public with women whenever possible and held parties at his Washington home that one guest described as decorated with photographs of himself with attractive women.
Foley had always refused to discuss his sexual orientation, a topic that drew increasing attention as he considered a bid for the Senate in 2004 and rumors about his personal life intensified. He decided not to run.
Despite Foley's silence, people on Capitol Hill assumed he was gay. "It was commonly known on Capitol Hill by staff and members," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill. "People have their own lifestyles as long as they mind their own business and play by the rules."
Gay members of both parties describe the Foley matter as something that could jeopardize the role that gay men and lesbians have assumed in Republican politics.
One gay Republican campaign strategist said he feared that conservatives would "play to the base" and redouble their efforts to vilify homosexuals.
"It's one of the places the party goes when it's in trouble," he said. "A lot of us are holding our breath to see how this plays out."
“The times, they are a changing”
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