October 6th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Clarification Requested: What exactly are we accusing Foley of?

Since I had the fun that is recycling a joke that is almost as old as some of the subjects in the Mark Foley scandal, I discovered something that I didn't know before. Washington DC has one of the lowest age-of-consent laws in the country. In the District of Columbia, it's only illegal to have sex with someone, or even to try to have sex with them, if they're fifteen or younger and you're not. And, by perhaps not entirely amazing coincidence, you can't become a Congressional Page unless you're 16, 17, or 18.

In the original scandal that my joke was coined for, two separate Congressmen were accused of having sexual relationships with pages. Both Congressmen were male. Both pages were 17, one male and one female. No criminal charges were filed because no laws were broken. Newt Gingrich, who was the House Majority Leader (for the Republicans, naturally, since Republicans had the majority at the time) tried to get both members expelled from Congress, but could only get the votes for censure. The Democratic gay Congressman with the 17 year old ex-boyfriend ignored the censure (literally ignored it, turned his back when it was announced) and went on to win re-election two more times.

Clearly a lot of the outrage over this comes from states where 16 year olds are jail bait, not coincidentally including Mark Foley's own home state of Florida. Clearly a lot of the outrage over this comes from the fact that the Republicans just spent at least two years scrambling around trying futilely to cover this up, and doing about as good a job as a cat trying to bury its droppings on a linoleum floor, which made it look like they, at least, thought that this was a big deal. (As Nixon said when he realized it too late to do himself any good, it's never the crime that gets you in trouble, it's the cover-up.) And I have no doubt in my mind that a lot of the outrage over this comes from the fact that whether it's legal or not, to most Americans it looks really disgusting to see a 50 year old dating (or even trying to date) dating someone young enough to be their grandchild, no matter what their respective genders.

And then, of course, there's the awkward question of how much of the outrage has to do with that hated bogeyman, Teh Buttsecks. I'm well aware that Democrats have a lot of good reasons to quietly hope that the deep disgust that a lot of Republicans feel about Teh Buttsecks, especially the Religious Right voters who abandoned the Democrats back in 1980 because they didn't trust Democrats to hate Teh Buttsecks as much as they do, will boycott this election (and maybe the next one) out of disgust that Republicans knowingly allowed a Buttsexx0r to try to date 16-year-olds, that they looked the other way rather than condemn him like good (fake) Christians are "supposed to do" (no matter what Jesus said to the contrary). Yes, arguably, it would be a good thing for the Democratic Party, tactically if not necessarily strategically, if this year the Republican disgust over Teh Buttsexx0rs were to turn the Republicans in the House of Representatives into a Circular Firing Squad.

But Democrats, especially Progressives, need to tread very lightly through this minefield. You do know why there are Log Cabin Republicans, don't you? It's because a lot of gay and lesbian and bisexual Americans have good reasons to suspect that most Democrats are just as disgusted by Teh Buttsexx0rs as most Republicans are, and are no more likely to look out for them. And in case you inexplicably didn't know this, the Democratic Party is awfully dependent on gay, lesbian, and bisexual campaign donors and campaign volunteers. Which is why no matter how disgusted they are (and you know that most of them are) any time they're forced to think about anything that gay men might do among themselves, they're always careful to try to mask that disgust in public. And considering that so far, everything that Mark Foley has been accused of has been as legal as church on Sunday, Democrats who show any tremendous outrage over it had better make sure that they have some grounds on which to do so other than disgust over a 50 year old guy who might want to have sex with legally-adult other men. Because we're just as vulnerable to a key constituency staying home on election day, and closing their wallets, if they conclude (I hope falsely) that we're not going to do any more to protect them than the Republicans have ever really done for their Religious Right contributors and volunteers. They might even conclude, as many of them already have or there wouldn't be Log Cabin Republicans, that if both parties are going to stab them in the back, they might as well vote Republican in hopes of getting lower taxes.

So what am I picking on Mark Foley for? It's not Teh Buttsecks. I jokingly spell it that way to convey the tone that most people have in their mind when they contemplate the idea with ill-disguised horror. What gay men do in private is of tremendous disinterest to me, except that for public health reasons I rather sincerely hope that they're paying attention to safer sex guidelines while they do it. No, what makes Mark Foley feel to me like a fair target are the labels I hung on him in the joke: "closeted gay" and "anti-pornography."

I have no problems with anybody's sexuality, even when it impinges on my own; I have no particular difficulty politely saying no when somebody who's unattractive to me makes a pass, regardless of their gender. But people who have to treat their sexuality as a deep dark secret make me deeply nervous, at best. Here's a bit of relevant US history for you. Until very recently, no gay man or lesbian woman could receive any kind of government security clearance. Why, prejudice? No, pragmatic caution. Even the most "out" gay or lesbian, it was argued, might well have somebody in their life (parent? child? landlord? their church? a future employer?) they didn't want their sex life to come to the attention of. And having any kind of a secret raises the question, not unreasonably, of what would you do to protect that secret? And in particular back before the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v Texas, it was entirely fair to point out that the secret in this case involved a coverup of a crime, at least in most states and municipalities. So who's to say, with everything at stake from disinheritance to jail time, that you wouldn't sell out your country, or if not that, some other lesser abuse of any public trust in you? Nor does it improve my opinion of people in the closet that so many of them feel a need to protect their cover by out-hating the haters when they're in public. But every bit as important as those two reasons to dislike and distrust people who have sex lives that they have to keep "in the closet" is this one: repressing your sexuality is the most reliable way known to man to turn yourself into a pervert, potentially even a dangerous pervert. If Mark Foley had felt safe openly dating other men, he might well have had what this culture normally considers more age-appropriate relationships. But as someone who felt that his career was in mortal danger if any of his sex partners talked about him, is it that surprising that he seldom or never worked up the nerve to date other grown men, and that he eventually redirected his sexual urges towards those who were young and at least somewhat under his power and authority?

Mark Foley's political crusade against pornography on the Internet also seems relevant to me. Heinlein famously sneered, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, that nobody ever clamors for legislation to outlaw their own vices, only their neighbors' vices ... but it's not true, unfortunately. I call to your attention that Mark Foley is not the first anti-gay-pornography crusader to claim that pornography inflames pedophiles to then get caught trying to have sex with teenagers. Remember Bruce Ritter? He was a Catholic priest on the Meese Commission who, the whole time he was on there, insisted that exposing people to lots of pornography turns them into perverts and pedophiles. And after spending over a year viewing pornography as a commissioner, what do you know, Father Ritter turned into (or turned out to be) a gay man attracted to teenage boys, himself. It was that case that started me down the path towards my current conclusion, which I have yet to see thoroughly disproven. When somebody says, "looking at pornography makes people commit crimes," what he or she really means is "looking at pornography makes me commit crimes." Or at least, that it makes them want to commit crimes. This has been proven by study after study to not be true of the vast majority of us, which means that when you find out that somebody is an anti-pornography crusader, you should instinctively suspect them of being guilty of something. By which standard Mark Foley's apparent ability (judging by what evidence is available to me so far, see parenthetic remark below) to restrict his urges to those who were barely legal in the jurisdiction he was in at the time qualifies as admirable restraint ... for as long as it lasts.

So by my admittedly-personal standards, as a closeted gay anti-porn crusader he should never have been trusted with public office in the first place, and I would say that even if there were no evidence that he'd ever engaged in text-message cybersex with barely-legal teenagers while sitting in public at his desk on the floor of the US House of Representatives.

(Confession: I wrote this and stuffed it into the queue Wednesday night. My last chance to have edited it will have been Thursday late morning, before my ride picks me up for Archon. Time permitting, I may stuff other columns onto the spike so that new journal entries continue to show up despite the fact that I'm on the far side of town from my keyboard. But if this column, or any columns before Sunday night/Monday morning, show evidence that I haven't seen any news since Thursday morning ... that would be because it's true.)