First published on September 4, 2007, at 365gay.com
Jim West, Jim McGreevey, Ted Haggard, Mark Foley, Bob Allen, David Vitter. Now Larry Craig.
Public figures’ getting caught with their pants down is nothing new. What is new is a high-tech culture that makes exposure likely, rapid, and widespread. Larry Craig pleaded guilty to “disorderly conduct” in Minnesota in the hopes that no one would notice in his home state of Idaho. A quarter-century ago, when Craig started his congressional career, that strategy might actually have worked.
For those who haven’t been following the news: Craig is a U.S. Senator who was arrested in June for soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport men’s room. He also happens to be a staunch opponent of gay rights, with a zero voting scorecard from the Human Rights Campaign.
People love sex scandals, and they especially love a sex scandal that brings a moralistic finger-wagger to his knees (ahem). Perhaps that’s why the above list —taken from recent memory, and by no means exhaustive—includes only one Democrat. Liberals enjoy sex as much as anyone, and they surely have their skeletons. But when someone soliciting forbidden sex is known for railing against sexual sin, it makes for a juicier story.
What is striking about the Craig saga is this: despite his over thirty years of public service, virtually no one rallied to his defense. Conservatives view him as a deviant. (Mitt Romney, whose Idaho presidential campaign Craig had chaired, referred to Craig’s behavior as “disgusting” before the senator even had an opportunity to release a statement.) Liberals view him as a hypocrite. Absolutely no one views him as credible. (His claim that he touched the arresting officer’s foot because he has a “wide stance” rang especially hollow.)
Various sides in the culture wars will try to make an example of Craig. Gay-rights opponents will spin the story as further evidence of homosexuality’s sordid nature, not to mention its vicious power. After all, if seemingly God-fearing men like Ted Haggard and Larry Craig can succumb to such behavior, who among us is safe?
Gay-rights advocates, by contrast, will spin it as evidence of the dangers of the closet. After all, openly gay people generally neither want nor need to troll restrooms for clandestine encounters.
The opponents are right to point out that sex is powerful, in a way that can make smart people do dumb, sometimes disastrous things. They’re wrong to think that this point is any more applicable to homosexuality than to heterosexuality (note Vitter’s name in the list above).
True, straight people don’t typically seek sex in public restrooms. But that’s partly because (1) public restrooms are mostly segregated by sex and (2) “quickie” sex is anatomically less convenient for women—which still hasn’t prevented some from joining the “mile high club” in cramped airplane lavatories.
The bigger reason is (3) straight people don’t feel the desperate need to conceal their erotic interests in the way closeted gay people do.
And that’s where gay-rights advocates make a decisive point: the culture of the closet is unhealthy for everyone involved. Lying about one’s sex life makes it easier to lie about other things; it also precludes the counsel of friends in an area where such counsel is desperately needed. (See previous point about sex being powerful.)
Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank put it well in a Newsweek interview regarding the Mark Foley scandal: “Being in the closet doesn’t make you do dumb things, doesn’t justify you doing dumb things, it just makes them likelier.” Frank should know: he was once embroiled in a scandal of his own involving a gay prostitute living in his Washington apartment during the 1980’s, when Frank was still closeted.
I’ll concede one point to gay-rights opponents: the fact that Larry Craig sought sex with men doesn’t prove he was wrong to condemn gay marriage, oppose workplace protections for gays, or support the military ban. He was wrong about those things independently of his sex life. In any case, our lives don’t always reflect our best judgment.
But the fact that Larry Craig sought sex with men does mean that he ought to have mustered more compassion for gays than his public stance suggested. (It’s one area where his stance was decidedly narrow.)
It’s easy to call Craig a deviant, a liar, and a hypocrite. It’s hard to feel compassion for someone who showed little of it to those who deal openly with challenges he knew privately. But compassion is still a virtue. Craig may not deserve it, but right now, he desperately needs it.