Completely obliterated, desperately drunk, I would sneak away from my straight friends from downtown Washington, D.C., bars back in the ’90s and stumble toward the gay clubs, always semiconscious — and semiconfident I would not run into anyone I knew.
Except once. Sort of.
At one time, then-Congressman Steve Gunderson, a Republican, was in the closet, and one night, I saw him through blurry eyes at a gay bar. I was at once shocked and reassured. Oh, my God, he’s gay? And I thought that if someone like him was gay, then I had a reason to feel a bit less embarrassed about my own sexuality and some reassurance that I wasn’t the only one in the closet.
And shortly after that moment, more than 25 years ago, Gunderson was publicly thrown out of his closet, after right-wing Rep. Bob Dornan had the audacity to out Gunderson on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives during a debate on a bill that would have discouraged school districts from adopting gay-friendly curricula. "My fellow Republican has a revolving door in his closet," said Dornan. "He's out. He's in. He's out. He's in."
In an article in The Advocate in May of 1994, Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who was one of only two openly gay members of Congress at the time, said the remarks illustrated why Gunderson was reluctant to come out.
"This is not an easy situation he finds himself in," he said. "In a perfect world, none of this would be necessary."
That was a shocking first. Speaking disparagingly of fellow members is against House rules. Dornan later withdrew his remarks, and Gunderson had no comment about them at the time. However, he would become the first openly gay Republican in Congress.
“To be honest, I might be the only person in America who didn’t think it was such a horrible experience,” Gunderson recalled. “Rather, I honestly saw it as an opportunity. First, Dornan and the other extremists way overplayed their hand. When an issue debate resorts to personal attacks, it is like saying, ‘We can’t win on the merits, so we’ll attack you personally instead.’ Second, I remember thinking at that time that the most important thing I could do was to be calm and strong. That type of response would win the larger debate.”
Despite Gunderson’s unruffled reaction, this action was viewed by many as despicable, representing the furtherance of slash-and-burn politics. “You and I both know by having been on the Hill during that time that political ideology was giving way to the politics of personal destruction, and the attacking of the person instead of debating the issues,” Gunderson lamented. “The culture was changing, so it wasn't a great surprise to me that my sexuality would get called out rather than the issues I was fighting for.”
The culture was also not used to learning about a gay member of Congress without controversy.
What preceded Gunderson’s outing were painful and embarrassing outings for other gay members. In 1980 Republican Congressman Robert Bauman of Maryland was arrested for soliciting sex from a 16-year-old male prostitute. Then in 1983, Democratic Congressman Gerry Studds of Massachusetts was entangled in the House page scandal over incidents with young male pages. Closeted Republican Congressman Stewart McKinney of Connecticut died of AIDS complications in 1987. And in 1989, one of Congress’s most prolific members, Frank, was forced to admit to a relationship with male prostitute.
“Clearly, we were living in different and difficult times regarding public officials being openly gay,” Gunderson reflected. “At that time, there was no process for coming out as gay, nor were there any predetermined examples and parameters about how to come out. And as a Republican in Congress, I certainly wasn’t going to issue a press release making some dramatic announcement. However, I do think that I was the first member to come out as gay without any negativity, sadness, or scandalous conduct.”
When I asked Gunderson if he was fearful of people finding out about his sexuality then, or if he was or embarrassed by it, he said unequivocally no. “In terms of my life at that time, there was no hypocrisy. I had a partner, and as you know, I did frequent the gay establishments. Had many gay friends. And my family and close friends knew I was gay.”
And 25 years ago this month, his constituents knew, and despite his being gay, they elected Gunderson to an eighth term in Congress. “I made sure when I ran for reelection that I ran as openly gay,” Gunderson explained. “I wanted to show that a rural, small-town district in Wisconsin and in the Midwest was able to demonstrate that you could vote for an elected official based on their professional work and not their personal life.”
During his campaign for reelection in 1994, Gunderson fondly relived the memory of farmers coming up to him with encouraging words during his 1994 reelection campaign — and asking for help. They would say, “‘As long as you take care of the cows in our barns, we don’t care that you’re gay.’ They didn’t necessarily support or endorse the fact that I was gay, they just didn’t judge me based on that,” he remembered.
Now, that’s not to say that all was well and good. His primary opponents and others made it a sordid and threatening issue. “I had a right-wing primary opponent who ran an ad showing some wild scenes from San Francisco’s gay pride with a voice-over that said something to the effect of ‘Is this who you want for your congressman?’ And I’ll be honest, there were a lot of painful threats and death threats that, unfortunately, you just had to figure out a way to deal with.”
Gunderson left Congress in January 1997 after serving for 16 years. “Leaving Congress had nothing to do with my sexuality, I just didn’t want to die there,” he joked. “I had already served 22 years of elective office in the state legislature and Congress. I didn’t want it to be a lifetime job. I made a commitment not to run after the 1994 election, and despite a lot of pressure to run again, I kept my word, and I left the political arena.”
When we set out on our conversation, we agreed not to make this column about politics, but I was curious to hear what he thought about Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the gay contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Gunderson had an answer at the ready. “Mayor Pete is the smartest person on either side,” he stressed. “His rhetoric is lifting up the values of what America is all about. He is willing to be open, honest, authentic, and proud of who he is. When election night is over next year, our country will be even more divided than it is today. The number 1 task for whoever is elected president is to bring this country back together and heal the divisiveness that exists in America and our government.”
To that end, when I sarcastically asked him if he longed to be participating in the impeachment hearings as a member of the House Intelligence Committee this week, Gunderson laughed and said, “Unfortunately, there is no room for a pragmatic Republican congressman.”
We both agreed he’s a lot better off as a private citizen today, where he does get occasionally recognized and thanked. I told him my story and how seeing a gay Republican congressman gave me a glimmer of hope at a time when there weren’t so many noteworthy gay figures to look up to, particularly in politics. “I still get stopped by strangers who want to shake my hand and let me know they’re grateful for my coming out, and that it helped them deal with their own sexuality,” he said. “That really means a lot and makes me happy I could help.”
Today, Gunderson is happily married. He and his husband, Ethan, recently celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary. “We’ve been together for seven years, and he is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
As we wrapped up, I wondered if Congressman Dornan ever apologized to him about that harrowing incident on the House floor. “He came over to me once and said that he didn’t mean to personally attack me and that he just wanted to win the argument,” Gunderson said.
And at what cost? Unfortunately, things haven’t changed much since 1994. Character assassinations are still being used to try to win the political fight. But maybe what’s different is that slapping the gay moniker on someone in public office isn’t so detrimental anymore. Whether it’s on the floor of the House, in a campaign ad or nowadays on Twitter, being gay is being used less as a weapon against a candidate’s character.
For that, we can thank Gunderson, among others, for taking those initial punches 25 years ago to get us where we are today. Because of his courage, we’re able to celebrate a Mayor Pete.
John Casey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.