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What Massa Could Learn From Ashburn


It isn't every day that I find myself praising a staunchly conservative, antigay-voting California lawmaker for setting an example that other public figures should follow. But watching the scandal ensnaring GOP state senator Roy Ashburn over the past week, I can't help but want to give him a pat on the back and say "job well done" for manning up and saying unequivocally, "I am gay."

On March 3 news broke that Ashburn, who hails from the conservative Central Valley bastion of Bakersfield, had been arrested on DUI charges in Sacramento while driving his state-leased car with an unidentified male companion. A TV station in the state capital soon reported that shortly before being pulled over by police Ashburn had been at a gay bar not far from the Capitol building.

It didn't take long for reporters to discover that Ashburn had actually been outed months ago by the gay mayor of West Sacramento, Christopher Cabaldon, on his Facebook page. It turns out Ashburn's outings to gay bars were one of the worst-kept secrets in the capital.

In the past these public morality tales of a closeted politician being exposed as a homosexual (and harangued by LGBT activists for their opposition to any piece of legislation with the word gay in it) have usually resulted with the said individual traipsing before the news media cameras with wife in tow to disavow his gay ways or announce he would seek counseling or turn to God for help in being a better heterosexual. [Former New Jersey governor James McGreevey did buck this trend with his famous declaration that he was an unapologetic 'gay American,' but it turned out his being gay was the least of his worries.]

Ashburn surely could have followed the same path. After disappearing from public view and taking a leave of absence from his senatorial duties, he could have made a bombastic return to the state house and denied, denied, denied being homosexual.

But he didn't.

Instead, he took to the airwaves Monday morning on a radio station in his district and confessed to the truth. "I am gay," Ashburn told KERN AM 1180 host Inga Barks. "Those are the words that have been so difficult for me for so long. But I am gay. But it is something that is personal and ... I felt with my heart that being gay didn't affect -- wouldn't affect -- how I did my job."

He also added that he would not have changed his votes against a pro-same-sex marriage bill or legislation creating a Harvey Milk state holiday in honor of the openly gay San Francisco supervisor who was gunned down by a former board colleague in 1978. The comments have elicited strong condemnation from many LGBT activists.

But compared to two other men who have had to address questions about their sexuality this week, Ashburn's coming-out is worthy of some praise. Glass-closet-living and April Advocate cover boy Sean Hayes, who played the mincing character Jack on Will & Grace, complained about having to say he is gay in an interview posted to the magazine's website that same day Ashburn was disclosing his sexuality on the radio.

"I never have had a problem saying who I am," states the actor, even though he refused to do an interview with The Advocate to talk about being an out gay man for years.

True, Hayes, in his own way, did advocate for the LGBT community, and since he isn't an elected politician, didn't have to vote against LGBT rights measures as a way to conceal his true sexual orientation. Nonetheless, there is a bit of hypocrisy in Hayes's saying that "nobody owes anything to anybody" when his fame and success is very much due to the LGBT community embracing his films and TV show.

Hayes's tortured reasoning for why he didn't have to come out is nothing compared to the self-delusions, scapegoating, and twisted logic that has been spewing forth from former New York Democratic congressman Eric Massa all week. Rather than follow Ashburn's lead and admit that he is gay, Massa, who resigned from Congress Monday, has dodged the question and obfuscated the real reasoning behind the allegations that he sexually harassed his male staffers.

Over the past week Massa has waffled about why he engaged in tickle fights with his male employees, offering up reasons as varied as having done it with his military buddies and being overly exuberant during his 50th birthday party. He even dragged into the controversy White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, whom he said yelled at him about his stance on health care legislation while naked in a gym shower room.

As gay Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart wrote, "Massa is a pitiful figure who should seek professional help for a host of issues, particularly to understand the root of his sexually charged interactions with men."

Thankfully, Ashburn didn't describe any naked shower run-ins with gay state senator Mark Leno. As chair of the LGBT legislative caucus - which would jump to five members should Ashburn join as its first Republican member - Leno should extend an invite to have Ashburn meet with his fellow out colleagues.

And despite his protestations about not changing his past votes on LGBT bills, Ashburn may in fact find out he can vote for several pieces of legislation being pushed by the LGBT caucus. In particular, Leno's bill seeking to clarify that religious leaders do not need to marry same-sex couples could be an easy one for Ashburn to endorse.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma's legislation making it easier for gay and lesbian couples to divorce seems like another no-brainer for Ashburn to get behind, especially if he isn't going to change his stance on opposing same-sex marriages in the first place.

At the end of the day what is needed more than hurling insults at Ashburn for not morphing into a "fierce advocate" for LGBT rights overnight -- something even President Obama has had difficulty becoming -- is for those LGBT constituents in his district who, like their senator, have been living in the closet to come out and demand their rights.

If there is one thing to fault Ashburn for, it is his false assumption that every voter residing in the state's 18th senate district wants him to be an impediment to seeing their LGBT neighbors be treated with equal dignity and be granted the same rights as they themselves are afforded. Yet if those LGBT people living in Kern and Tulare counties, the deserts of Inyo County, or the mountains of San Bernardino County do not speak up and reach out to Ashburn, he has no incentive to cast a pro-gay vote between now and when he leaves office in the fall.

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