Aaron Schock, Illinois Republican congressman and self-proclaimed fitness guru, is in the news again, this time for flying on donors’ private planes in possible contravention of ethics rules. The charge is serious, but the reaction is anything but. Cue the snickers and dog whistles: Have you heard that Schock decorated his office with Downton Abbey–themed décor, then tried to hide it? What about the time he went shopping in London’s “posh clothing stores” with Shea Ledford, his “longtime friend”? Have you met his personal photographer, Jonathon? Have you seen his teal belt, which he later burned? What about those Instagram photos of him working out with his buff gym pals?
If you missed these stories—all heavily covered by popular gay blogs—you surely saw New York magazine’s wink at the New York Times’ wink that Schock “said that he is not gay,” despite having an Instagram page filled with preening shirtless shots. Or CNN’s interview with Schock about his abs. Or Schock’s Men’s Health cover photo and photo spread, titled “The Ripped Representative,” which featured Schock’s pearls of fitness wisdom interspersed with shots of Schock posing to display his bulging brawn. And if you somehow missed Schock peeping out at you from the newsstands, you surely caught the reaction, summed up by Mario Cantone on ABC’s The View: “He’s in the closet. Come on, look at him!”
All this tittering over Schock’s titivation and titillation is kosher, we are told, because of Schock’s fiercely anti-gay voting record. That is, after all, the Barney Frank rule: Closeted politicians who oppose gay rights deserve to be outed. But as the years have passed, nobody has yet to bring forward conclusive evidence that Schock has sex with men, while the congressman himself has continued to insist that he is straight. The rumors have remained unconfirmed scuttlebutt, even as the whispers have grown into shouts and laughter.
So here we are in 2015, and each new Schock story—not just the silly ones, the serious ones, too—gurgles with increasingly irrepressible gay subtext. In a Slatest post on Tuesday, I myself couldn’t resist mentioning that, among other ethically dubious moves, Schock used money from a conservative political action committee to foot the bill for a fundraising event at a massage parlor. Schock’s alleged misdeeds are actually quite disturbing. But in covering them, I, like many others, got caught up in the hilarity of the fact that Schock may have used taxpayer money to take his interns to a Katy Perry concert. (Did you know he also took a selfie with another gay anthem–belting pop star, Ariana Grande? The Washington Post wants to make sure you do.)
When the media—and, especially, the gay blogosphere—covers Aaron Schock, we’re doing a lot more than merely tracking the triumphs and travails of this flamboyant, beleaguered young congressman. Make no mistake: The reason we cover Schock so closely is because we think he is closeted, and we think it is obvious, and we think it is funny. It is breathtakingly easy to turn a pedestrian post about Schock’s misdeeds into a sly, wry collection of winks and double entendres. From the roster of gorgeous men he always has at his side to the endless stream of shirtless, polished pictures, Schock is at once a gay icon and a laughingstock. Listen to what he’s done now, the typical Schock story smirks. And he still says he’s straight?
You can decide for yourself whether sniggering at Schock’s gay-seeming antics is acceptable or insensitive. But don’t forget that just beneath the surface of the saturated coverage lies a savage mockery of Schock’s perceived closetedness. When we talk about Aaron Schock, we’re talking about the glass closet and the role it plays in modern American politics. Over the last few years, this conversation has taken the form of a long, snarky joke. And it’s clear by now that Aaron Schock is the punch line.