Someone sure is trying to make Madison Cawthorn—the, um, troubled Republican representative from North Carolina—seem gay. If you’ve already peeked at the mounting (ha!) “evidence,” you might wonder if it isn’t Cawthorn trying to make himself seem gay: In the past few weeks, we’ve been treated to leaks of a lingerie photo shoot; a groin grope in a moving vehicle and suggestive Venmo exchanges with a male “close aide”; and on Wednesday, a grainy phone video of the onetime up-and-comer naked, in bed, vigorously humping a friend’s head while producing strange hoops and hollers. This man, who has confirmed his presence in all of these scenes, certainly enjoys, let us say gently, activities more traditionally associated with the practice of homosexuality.
Whoever is leaking these bits of intel—which Cawthorn, in an unfortunate turn of phrase, has called a “drip drip campaign” of blackmail—must be calculating that either classic homophobia on the part of his constituents, or perhaps just general disapproval of these sorts of antics from an avowedly Christian Republican, will cost the freshman congressman his reelection primary on May 17. Fire Madison Cawthorn, an opposition group working for his ouster that has been the conduit of much of this material and that has filed a formal ethics complaint against him, certainly hopes so. (That is, if the unbecoming outbursts, misappropriation allegations, and run-ins with traffic cops and the TSA aren’t enough.) But for his part, Cawthorn seems largely unbothered. He shrugged off the lingerie snaps as “goofy vacation photos” and of Wednesday’s humping video, he tweeted: “A new hit against me just dropped. Years ago, in this video, I was being crass with a friend, trying to be funny. We were acting foolish, and joking. That’s it. I’m NOT backing down.”
For my part, I find the whole thing unpleasant and dumb and I wish my job did not necessitate me gazing upon Cawthorn’s bare ass. But I figure if this drip could continue puddling into the fall, we had better get something straight: Madison Cawthorn is probably not gay. And the huge rush of speculation over the question that followed these leaks is not the fun game of gotcha many seem to think it is.
Now listen: I don’t know this! I can’t know Cawthorn’s true sexuality—only he can. And if he is gay, I both hope that he’s able to find a healthy way of expressing that in his life AND that he, as an elected official who is decidedly not a queer ally, receives all of the professional damage and disgrace the universe allots to him under the Frank rule.
But friends, I just don’t think he’s gay. Let me tell you why.
When I saw the lingerie photos, I did not think look at this fierce fabulous WOMAN created by the venerable gay art and science of drag! I thought: I have seen other photos (albeit from the ’80s) of men I know to be straight doing this exact thing at a fundraiser … for a church.
The close aide crotch contact and head-humping are harder to explain—until you remember that for whatever else he is, Madison Cawthorn is a bro. And bros—whether of the frat, athletic, military, or adjacent varieties—really, really, really like to act gay all over one another. Here’s a helpful thread you can read about that, if you like:
Now, you might say to me, but Bryan, maybe they are gay? Maybe all of this homoerotic joking and “horsing around” is only the thinnest of sauna towels draped over the latent homosexuality that’s desperate to poke through? I would allow that some percentage of actually gay bros inhabit this (frankly awful-sounding) psychosexual pantomime—I just might have known some in college. But I would respectfully counter that, for most of these guys, the gay play is really just that: play. And whatever happens in the, uh, play session doesn’t really affect the identities of the men involved—at least not in the way you’d think.
I assure you I am not making these claims based on solely personal experience. As soon as I heard about the most recent clip, I pulled down my copy of Jane Ward’s controversial and utterly fantastic 2015 book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, which is an eye-opening study of exactly these dynamics with lots of evidence, including photos of, oh let’s see, a charming little frat initiation dance called the “elephant walk” involving thumbs and … well, you should check out the book! Anyway, Ward apparently thought of her work as being relevant here as well, and so I proceeded to refresh my memory.
It didn’t take long. On the second page, Ward—in describing how she became interested in the subject during an undergraduate seminar she took on sexual politics—writes about a video featuring a scene that Cawthorn would clearly find familiar: “The video, a compilation of chaotic footage [another student] had shot exclusively inside the bedrooms and bathroom of his fraternity house, showed nude white boys laughing and holding down other white boys whom they mounted and ‘pretended’ to fuck on top of a bunk bed.” Ward recalls that when asked about the meaning of his footage, her classmate “had remarkably little to say”: “ ‘We’re just fucking around. It’s a frat thing,” adding: “It’s hard to explain.”
Ward’s full argument in Not Gay is far richer than I can cover here (particularly in the way race shapes experiences of masculinity and sexual meaning), but for l’affaire Madison, her most immediately important insight is this: “When straight white men approach homosexual sex in the ‘right’ way—when they make a show of enduring it, imposing it, and repudiating it—doing so functions to bolster not only their heterosexuality, but their masculinity.” In other words, for a lot of the guys in Cawthorn’s vein of brodom, playing at being gay—even to the point of real sexual contact—can actually make you straighter.
I know. It’s weird. Just wait until you read about the world of straight guys who jerk off together. I don’t make the rules! But however you feel about what’s really going on in this fevered swamp of American masculinity, I hope we can agree that it has almost nothing to do with actual gay men. You know, the ones Cawthorn and his party are currently trying to erase from public life, alongside the rest of our queer and trans family. I don’t live in North Carolina, but if I did, I would certainly want this guy to lose his reelection bid. But even so, it is not cute in 2022 to pursue that outcome with low-key homophobic snickering and gay rumor-mongering—not when it’s probably untrue, and especially when there are so many other, far more obvious reasons he’s unfit to serve. Remember: Cawthorn has only (probably!) pretended to fuck other guys. He’s done plenty of real things to fuck himself.