Investigating 'the congressional closet' | Exclusive |

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Investigating "the congressional closet"
In September 1996 The Advocate ran a story titled "On the record," which has been repeatedly cited as the deliberate outing of congressmen Jim Kolbe (pictured) and Mark Foley. Decide for yourself. Here's the original text of that now infamous investigation.

An exclusive posted October 10, 2006


On the record

Heated debate over House approval of the antigay Defense of Marriage Act shines a wary spotlight on the congressional closet.

They spoke to their colleagues—and the nation—from experience. They argued that by passing a bill that defines marriage strictly as a union between a man and a woman, the House was trampling on the civil rights of gays and lesbians. They were talking about their own rights as gay men. And everybody knew it.

Steve Gunderson, Barney Frank, and Gerry Studds made their status as gay men relevant to the debate that took place in July. Arguably, the marital status and sexual orientation of every member of Congress was at issue when the House voted 342–67 to approve the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a bill that would allow states to avoid recognizing same-sex marriages granted in other states. (Hawaii could be the first to legalize such unions.)

Reporters quizzed Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican and a chief sponsor of the bill, about his three marriages. But they stayed away from approaching lawmakers long thought by many to be gay to ask why they voted the way they did. Gay rights activists, however—including many who abhor the practice of outing—argued that given the current climate and an issue as crucial and controversial as gay marriage, such questions were fair.

"If it's relevant to the issue, why not ask?" said Mindy A. Daniels, founder and executive director of the National Lesbian Political Action Committee. Or as Torie Osborn, former head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, put it: "Anything's a fair line of inquiry that's involving a public debate about morality and politics."

However, gay opinion makers were far from consensus on the issue. Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who disclosed his sexual orientation in 1987, was among those who expressed reservations. While Frank had threatened to out closeted House Republicans if the GOP tried to reinstate sexual orientation as a reason to deny someone government security clearance and while he conceded that gay marriage opens the door to asking lawmakers questions about sexual orientation, he argued that boundaries remain. "If you're not a hypocrite or misleading people," he said, "you have the right to be quiet about [being gay]."

The Advocate has a policy against outing, which the magazine defines as "the initial disclosure in a public medium or forum of someone's sexual orientation without his or her permission." For this story The Advocate followed up on prior reports in other media and on the Internet about closeted lawmakers where their names were mentioned. If these reports could be independently verified—that is, if at least three sources with professional or personal relationships with a lawmaker said they considered the lawmaker to be gay—the next step was to approach the lawmaker in question. They were verified, and The Advocate contacted Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona and Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, both Republicans, to ask them to explain their votes in favor of DOMA as well as to talk about their sexual orientation.

Both men objected to the latter line of questioning. "Even members of Congress should be allowed to have personal lives," Kolbe, 54, said in a telephone interview. "The issue of my sexuality has nothing to do with the votes I cast in Congress or my work for the constituents of Arizona's fifth congressional district." Upon reflection, however, Kolbe decided to come out soon after talking to The Advocate, saying the magazine's questioning of him was a chief factor. Foley, in written answers to The Advocate's questions, stated his belief that "a lawmaker's sexual orientation is...irrelevant."

But while Kolbe and Foley told The Advocate that a member of Congress's sexual orientation should not be an issue, activists were saying otherwise. Michael Petrelis—who gained notoriety for throwing a drink on Gunderson at a gay bar in 1991 and then publicizing the incident in an attempt to force the congressman to come out—used his computer to raise questions about several lawmakers he said were in the closet. Petrelis sent his own reports or forwarded others to a mailing list that included more than 100 activists, writers, and publications.

Shortly afterward a gay broadcast journalist in New England, Kurt Wolfe, discussed both Kolbe's and Foley's sexual orientation publicly. In late July, in a story on the congressional closet, Wolfe reported on WBAI radio in New York and on the cable television program Out in New England that Kolbe is gay. In a follow-up report August 8 on his television show, Wolfe also reported that Foley is gay.

In the past both Kolbe and Foley probably would not have experienced the kind of scrutiny now thrust upon them. Activists used the standard that if a lawmaker or senior government official acted in a hypocritical way and was actually gay, then he or she was fair game for outing. What changed the rules for some activists was the gay-marriage issue. Gays and lesbians shuddered when Republicans introduced DOMA, threatened to rebel when President Clinton backed it, and demanded accountability when the House passed it. All eyes now are on the Senate, which is expected to take up the measure in September.

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