Conservative Activists Considering Role of Gay Lawmakers

Conservative activists are beginning to discuss the Mark Foley scandal as indicative of a GOP that has become too tolerant of gays in their midst.

Regardless of the party's efforts against gay marriage, the argument goes, the fact that Republican officials accept gay congressmen, such as Foley, and staffers will mean the party will have problems.

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"As a society, we've made diversity and tolerance the guidepost of public life," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council told ABC News. "Maybe we shouldn't be surprised that we have congressmen chasing after 16-year-old boys."

While to many this point of view will smack of sheer bigotry, the Foley scandal has indubitably brought one issue into the light: For generations, Washington, D.C., has been home to a community of gay and lesbian politicians and staffers who live in the closet, hiding their private lives for fear of ostracism if not persecution.

A question now being debated is whether Foley's homosexuality is part of the problem of what led to his inappropriate behavior with pages -- or, conversely, whether it stemmed at all from the fact that Foley felt forced to hide his orientation.

As former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, a Democrat, showed during his 2004 scandal, being a closeted gay politico is not exclusively a Republican affliction, though the Democratic Party is certainly considered a more hospitable place for gays and lesbians to work openly.

Many are uncomfortable with any discussion of Foley's predatory life being connected to his being gay.

Preying on teens is hardly an exclusively gay affliction, of course, and gay rights organizations have distanced themselves from Foley's behavior, saying the scandal is about inappropriate contact with minors, period, regardless of the sexual orientation of the players.

Closet Life

But interestingly, it isn't only social conservatives discussing a possible tie between sexual orientation and Foley's predatory behavior with pages.

Richard Isay, a Weisll Cornell Medical College professor of psychiatry and author who has studied gay men and women, says his psychiatric studies show that closeted gays who work for organizations that are inhospitable to them may be more prone to "doing things that are going to get themselves into trouble."

"If the atmosphere of the Republican Party is not hospitable to gay people … you're going to have more problems," Isay said.

In his academic opinion, Isay believes that Foley's pathology includes "much more than just this kind of behavior -- hitting on pages," but likely includes other kind of secretive behavior.

He also believes that Foley "had an enormous need to be caught and punished. You don't send e-mails to underage pages unless you want to be caught, and that's directly related to impoverished self-esteem and the need to be punished."

Gay conservative writer Andrew Sullivan wrote on his blog this week that the Foley scandal wasn't about pedophilia or homosexuality.

"[I]t's fundamentally about the closet," he wrote. "The closet is so psychologically destructive it often produces pathological behavior. When you compartmentalize your life, you sometimes act out in one compartment in ways that you would never condone in another one. Think Clinton-Lewinsky, in a heterosexual context. But closeted gay men are particularly vulnerable to this kind of thing. Your psyche is so split by decades of lies and deceptions and euphemisms that integrity and mental health suffer. No one should excuse Foley's creepy interactions; they are inexcusable, as is the alleged cover-up. … But there's a reason gay men in homophobic institutions behave in self-destructive ways."

Sullivan compared the Vatican and the Republican National Committee as places of "entrenched homophobia, psychologically damaged closet cases, inappropriate behavior toward teens and minors … and cover-ups designed entirely to retain power."

'Political Correctness'?

Social conservatives, however, have seized on the story line that homosexuality leads directly to interest in underage partners, though it should be noted that there's as yet no evidence of any improper physical contact between Foley and the former pages.

Paul Weyrich, an influential conservative who heads the Free Congress Foundation, told ABC News that "there is not a place for a gay representative to intersect with young pages. The reality is that many of them are interested in little boys. Not all of them, of course. But many of them."

Isay says there is "no evidence" that gay adults pursue sexual relationships with teenagers to a greater degree than straight adults.

"In our culture, youth is prized," Isay said. "It's no secret that straight men like to have sex with young people too."

Regardless, on Tuesday, the Arlington Group, a coalition of conservative organizations, released a letter expressing concern "that the early warnings of Mr. Foley's odd behavior toward young male pages may have been overlooked or treated with deference, fearing a backlash from the radical gay rights movement because of Mr. Foley's sexual orientation. It appears that the integrity of the conservative majority has given way to political correctness, trading the virtues of decency and respect for that of tolerance and diversity. No one should be surprised at the results of such a tragic exchange."

And there is agreement among liberals and conservatives that the existence of gays in the GOP may have contributed to Foley's behavior.

For liberals, it's the notion of being forced to be in the closet that is at issue.

"I do believe that he had unhealthy sexual advances to these guys because he was living his life as a closeted gay man," said Mike Rogers, a gay rights activist who specializes in "outing" closeted gay Republicans. "And that's what informs his actions. Had he lived his life honestly and openly and been proud of who he is, this would never would have happened."

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who publicly acknowledged his gay orientation in 1987, has said that a sex scandal in which he was embroiled in the 1980s was at least partly a result of his secret life.

"Two and a half years after I voluntarily acknowledged being gay, a hustler with whom I had been involved tried to become rich, not only by publicizing our relationship but by luridly fictionalizing it," Frank wrote in the gay magazine The Advocate in 2002. "I was able to deal with the fictional parts by refuting them in front of the House Ethics Committee. As to what I had done wrong -- paying him for sex -- I noted that trying to live a closeted life while being publicly prominent proved to be emotionally, physically, and in every other way more difficult than I had anticipated, resulting in extreme emotional stupidity."

There are currently only three openly gay members of Congress: Frank; Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., who outed himself right before The Advocate planned to do so in 1996; and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.

Gay Congressional Staffers

But there is a much larger network of gay and lesbian staffers, including those in prominent positions, for conservative politicians in fervent opposition to gay rights.

Former Republican Rep. Ed Schrock of Virginia -- a conservative voice against gays in the military and against gay marriage -- resigned in 2004, after Rogers posted online voice recordings of him soliciting gay sex.

Schrock currently works as staff director for a House subcommittee.

Kirk Fordham, who resigned Wednesday as chief of staff to Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., told the FBI today that as Foley's chief of staff as far back as 2003, he'd warned Hastert about Foley's inappropriate behavior with pages.

Fordham, who is openly gay, has been the subject of discussion by Hastert allies that the GOP leadership was hurt last week by Fordham's attempt to protect Foley from the fallout of news that he had sent inappropriate Internet messages to former pages.

The subtext of this talk seemed to be that there was a sort of "velvet mafia" of gay staffers and politicians who looked out for one another.

That may not square with Fordham's allegation -- denied by Hastert's office -- that he warned the GOP leadership about Foley as much as three years ago, but it has become a talking point among the blabbocracy on cable TV.

For a GQ story I wrote on the subject in 2005, Frank told me that "the Republican attitude is that they have now moved to the point where they accept the fact that you're gay as long as you act somewhat embarrassed about it."

More to the point, perhaps, came comments from a gay Republican congressional staffer, who said that ours "is a representative democracy, and while members [of Congress] may not have personal problems with having gay staff, they vote the way their constituents want them to."

The staffer described "a devoted minority" of congressmen and senators who "care very intensely" about stopping any gay rights.

But "25 of them are going to go to the mat on the issue" while "75 percent are like, 'OK, fine, whatever.'"

Gays in Government

The debate over the role of gays in civic life has been a part of the American story at least as far back as March 11, 1778, when Gen. George Washington approved the court martial of Lt. Gotthold Frederick Enslin for homosexuality.

In the preceding century in particular, it became something of a minor obsession.

From the U.S. Senate Naval Affairs Committee's "Report on Alleged Immoral Conditions and Practices at the Naval Training Station, Newport, RI" in 1921, to the Senate Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Department's report "The Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government" in 1951, bureaucrats have long been studying and grappling with whether homosexuals should work in government at all.

Largely the justification for such discrimination came in the argument that gays were more likely to become spies because they were susceptible to blackmail.

In 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, resulting in the termination of more than 600 federal employees for "sexual perversion."

However unjust gay and lesbian rights groups might consider the America of 2006, it is nothing less than astounding to realize how much matters have changed not just since Ike, but in just the last few decades.

It was 1974 when the first U.S. elected officeholder came out of the closet, and a full seven years later when the first openly gay judge was appointed.

That was in San Francisco, perhaps unsurprisingly. But even though plenty of people may have been here and queer in the Bay Area, society was still getting used to it.

In 1982, then-Mayor of San Francisco Dianne Feinstein vetoed a bill allowing domestic partnership benefits for gay and lesbian city employees.

Indeed, even while the country grows more conservative on a host of domestic issues -- abortion, to name but one -- gay rights is the one issue Americans seem to be coming to an increasingly liberal view.

When then-Gov. Howard Dean signed Vermont's civil unions bill into law in 2000, conservatives declared the pending Apocalypse and within months the Vermont legislature turned Republican.

But only four years later, just days before his re-election, President Bush would tell ABC News' Charlie Gibson that while he viewed "the definition of marriage different from legal arrangements that enable people to have rights," he didn't "think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that's what a state chooses to do so."

Regardless, Bush's fellow Republican Mark Foley didn't feel comfortable publicly announcing that he is gay until this week, after he was out of Congress and at a point when his being gay was hardly the most scandalous news about him.

ABC News' Sara Just, Ashley Phillips and Gigi Stone contributed to this report.