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The Foley
scandal and the power of the public closet

The Foley
scandal and the power of the public closet


As Beltway insiders and the media elite obsess over the Mark Foley scandal, no one's talking about the story's blatant gay overtones--just as no one ever talked about Foley's sexuality in the first place. The silence speaks volumes about the continuing power of the public closet.

As much as official Washington and the media establishment remain obsessed with the political fallout from the ever-escalating Mark Foley scandal, what has so far gone unmentioned is the simple truth that some of the teenage House pages clearly enjoyed their improper online dalliances with the disgraced former Congressman. The transcripts of the IM exchanges provided to ABC News by two of the pages say it all. One, a high school lacrosse player, apparently had no qualms about telling the ex-representative the size of his genitals and admitted to being turned on by the conversation, while another page engaged in actual cybersex with Foley (right before a House floor vote, no less), then said goodbye by mimicking a kiss with the help of a few choice keyboard symbols.

Not that their reciprocation excuses Foley's totally irresponsible behavior in any way. Being the adult in each situation--and one who headed the powerful House caucus on missing and exploited children at that--he should have known better than to take advantage of his young friends' burgeoning sexuality as he did. But isn't it interesting that in all the nonstop news coverage since the story first broke a week ago, no one has yet remarked upon this mutual sexual desire, as glaringly obvious as it is? It may indeed be the most scandalous aspect of the scandal, in part because of rampant cultural denial about teenagers' libidos. But the telling silence also speaks volumes about the continuing power of the public closet in America today--how even in the face of indisputable evidence of homosexuality, most observers (read: the mainstream media) will choose to look the other way.Among the various explanations for the scandal offered in recent days by House Republicans, talking heads, and Foley himself (as expressed through his lawyer), none have come close to acknowledging what really was going on here: namely, that a horny, powerful older gay man successfully seduced a few 16- and 17-year-old guys who apparently are gay too. Similar seductions happen all the time in a gay male culture that sanctifies youth, just as they occur frequently enough in a straight culture with its own fixation on underage shenanigans. (How many teacher-student scandals have there been over the years, to name one genre?)Reading the IM transcripts on, I was reminded of my own online affairs when I was 15 and 16 with strange men from across the country. In the early-to-mid 1990s, when the Internet--not to mention gay visibility and acceptance--was just starting to take off, exchanging sexually charged messages with these random older guys known to me only by lines of text was the only way I could explore my sexual feelings. It was way better than hopelessly fantasizing about the straight boys I glimpsed partially undressed in the locker room of my suburban D.C. high school. And in retrospect, it was an essential part of my self-discovery as a gay man.I know I'm not alone in that, which is why I don't find the content of the IMs as shocking as the mere fact that Foley would engage in such behavior in the first place--and with an unbelievably identifiable screen name as "Maf54." Did he really think he could get away with it? Or, as the conventional wisdom in the gay blogosphere would have it, was he so screwed up psychologically from being in the closet (or from being molested by a priest as a youth) that the only way he could fulfill himself sexually was to act out with minors?But the reality, as numerous press accounts have made abundantly clear this last week, is that Foley's sexuality was an "open secret" (as CNN correspondent Dana Bash put it) both inside the Beltway and in his West Palm Beach, Fla., Congressional district for some time now. Although he may have called a press conference in 2003 to squelch rumors that he is gay (while not actually saying he wasn'tgay), it was known as far back as 1996, thanks to anAdvocateinvestigation, that he probably was--and in recent years he was spotted in local D.C. gay bars, as other so-called "closeted" politicians have on occasion. Back in Florida, he would often be seen with a longtime male companion. According to one report I read, local journalists even knew of his penchant for hitting on younger men. Maybe notteenagemen, mind you, but younger men all the same. It's just--whether because of fear, lack of interest, or an outdated sense of propriety around disclosing one's sexual orientation--no one bothered to report on it, just as no one is reporting now on the blatant gay overtones of an otherwise "political" scandal.It's not hard to imagine that Foley, like certain news anchors and Hollywood leading men, must have come to rely on that protection from the press, basically living his life as an openly gay man without worrying that he would be outed. Indeed, the editor of The Miami Herald, which along withThe St. Petersburg Timeshad received copies last year of the same e-mails from an upset former page that ABC News used to break the story, said as much when he told the Associated Press why he chose not to do anything with the information then. "Given the potentially devastating impact that a false suggestion of pedophilia could have on anyone, not to mention a congressman known to be gay, and lacking any corroborating information, we chose not to do a story," Tom Fiedler explained--as if Foley's sexuality was as important a reason for backing off the story as the lack of corroboration of the accusations.But what if the mainstream press had mustered the nerve to cover Foley's sexuality by the time they had enough corroboration of it(which, according to an item on this week, suggests was by 2002 at the latest)? What if, instead of hiding behind misguided policies against "outing" public figures, big-time newspaper editors in Washington had actually let the truth be told about Foley? Might he have felt a bit more accountable--or, at the very least, more scrutinized? Might he have cut out his misbehavior accordingly? And might the Republican Party have been forced--for once--to deal with an actual homosexual in their midst, one who held a visible children's-welfare post? Imagine what the party's conservative base would have thought of that.

Instead, regrettably, we must watch as right-wing lunatics have a field day over the Foley debacle, seeing it as the ultimate proof that being gay is tantamount to being a pedophile, while the media, far from debunking that convenient fiction, simply declaims "Foley is gay, Foley is gay," without any greater context. Meanwhile, the man himself is holed up at an undisclosed rehab center, following a tried-and-true method for scandal management: fess up, enter 12-step recovery, hopefully avoid civil lawsuits and criminal charges while snagging the lucrative book deal, and then, upon the book's publication some years later, become anointed by the gay establishment as their newest role model a la James McGreevey (whose many alleged misdeeds as a New Jersey politician have been largely swept under the rug since his own book was published a few weeks ago).And the mysterious, anonymous young pages who helped bring Foley down despite getting off with him previously? When will they speak publicly? And when they do, what will they say?

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