Fussy, Hysterical, Wine-Sipping Pols

A history of political gay-baiting.

Last month, former Republican National Committee chairman Kenneth Mehlman came out of the closet, saying he’d taken 43 years to get comfortable with this part of himself. “Encouraging adults who love each other and who want to make a lifelong commitment to each other to get married” is consistent with GOP policy, he added. In a better world, conservatives would see the light, beg for forgiveness, and declare that gay-baiting was no longer a legitimate strategy for either party. But the fact is that gay-baiting, whether fine-tuned to the point of near-subliminality or outrageously transparent, continues to fit comfortably into the modern political discourse.

Generally, gay-baiting is the linguistic practice of publicly insinuating, with little or no evidence, that a rival might be gay, without ever using the word “gay” or homosexual.” Successful euphemistic smears include “San Francisco,” “weak,” or even “hairdresser.” The practice has been around since before the Revolutionary War, and recycles the same tropes. In 2010, of course, the difference should be that it’s no longer a damning insinuation. Out gay politicians are members of congress and mayors of major American cities; Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is on the way out, with the approval of 57 percent of the population; gay couples across the country raise adopted and biological children; and legal gay marriage is an imminent possibility.

And yet the bait goes on.

Baiting succeeds because it relies on the kind of bad joke in which many people still take guilty or not-so-guilty pleasure, prompting the defense that critics just need to lighten up. Just last week in Delaware, in the lead-up to Tuesday’s GOP primary, consultants employed until recently by Tea Partier and Mama Grizzly Christine O’Donnell ran a television ad in which an announcer asks a person onscreen about O’Donnell’s opponent’s sexuality: “Isn’t Mike Castle cheating on his wife with a man?” The person onscreen replies with a knowing laugh, “That’s the rumor.” Huh? Is this a joke? What rumor?

As underhanded campaign tactics go, baiting carries almost no consequences for the baiter; he or she can claim ignorance of anything but the literal meaning of the words being used to insinuate something very different. Baiting is adaptable to a wide variety of media—speeches, off-the-cuff comments, press releases, political ads. And given the Internet, it’s more spreadable than ever. The most salacious or absurd baits easily go viral, often helped along by blog posts from people honestly decrying it.

In Mehlman’s case, a reporter broke through this annoying cycle of rumors by just asking the man, and then pressed him until he came out and answered. Maybe this can become the future model: Combat the subtle and devious art of gay-baiting by just bluntly asking every time a bait is laid. It wouldn’t hurt, either, for closeted gay politicians who vote against gay rights to come out of the closet while still in office and start voting for LGBT equality.

And so, without further ado, Slate’s taxonomy of American political gay-baits.

The Euphemisms
A perfect baiting euphemism is many steps removed from the realm of sexual orientation and merely relies on certain preexisting association in the public’s mind. In the past people used terms with sexual meaning—pervert or sexual deviant, for example. This generation has a new set of phrases, most notably, “San Francisco,” “wine drinker,” and even “renter” rather than homeowner.

This television ad run by Republican incumbent Sam Graves against Democrat challenger Kay Barnes in the 2008 Missouri 6th District congressional race is a classic, so packed with gay stereotypes that it could be mistaken for a parody of gay-baiting.”In San Francisco,” sneers the announcer, “Nancy Pelosi is throwing  … a ritzy California fundraiser celebrating [Kay] Barnes’ San Francisco values.”

One of the newer euphemisms to emerge is the “renter.” In the 2008 race for Minnesota’s 3rd District House seat, Republican Erik Paulsen’s campaign repeatedly questioned Democrat Ashwin Madia’s “lifestyle,” a term frequently used by social conservatives in lieu of “sexual orientation.” (“Lifestyle” implies there’s a choice to the matter.) One specific the Paulsen campaign did cite was the fact that Madia had “never, never even owned a home.” The subtext is not just that Madia didn’t pay homeowner taxes. A renter is a transient, unwilling to settle down, promiscuous when it comes to real estate and, the campaign implied, who knows what else.

The Aggressive Metaphor
The classic of this category is the memo the Republican National Committee under Lee Atwater sent around in 1991. Titled “Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet,” it compared the rising Speaker of the House’s voting record to that of out gay congressman Barney Frank’s. The slur met with criticism in almost every quarter, yet Foley, who had been married for 20 years at the time, felt he had no choice but to address the charges on national television, “I am, of course, not a homosexual,” and deny them before his fellow Democrats, to the reported embarrassment of all involved.

Atwater, by then an acknowledged smear-master, initially claimed that there was nothing untoward about the title of the Foley memo, then added that he hadn’t seen the document before it went out and fired his communications director.

Weak and Whiny
One way to suggest a man is gay is to play to the notion that a man with a soft voice, touch, or walk is weak, and that weak men are gay. South Carolina Democratic party chairman Dick Harpootlian famously commented in 2001 that Republican Lindsey Graham, then a candidate for Strom Thurmond’s U.S. Senate seat, was “a little too light in the loafers” to fill the shoes of his predecessor. Though “light in the loafers” is one of the most tired gay euphemisms there is, Harpootlian claimed he was unaware that his remark about Graham’s loafers had gay connotations, to which journalist Greg Hambrick responded in the Charleston City Paper, “Apparently he didn’t know what too thick in the head meant either.”

During the  2005 Virginia governor’s race, a local paper described Republican Jerry Kilgore’s voice as a “Ned Flanders meets Mr. Rogers’ whine.” In other words, the guy’s voice sounds gay. Then an ad for then-candidate and ultimately Governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, called Kilgore “too weak to lead Virginia” and included the line, “Jerry Kilgore is not being straight.”

In the 2010 midterm elections, the Mama Grizzlies have deployed the weak bait with gusto. Karen Handel, a candidate in the Georgia GOP’s gubernatorial primary, informed her opponent that it was “time to put the big boy pants on.” This year, gearing up for midterm elections, Sarah Palin used this bait on Obama, stating on Fox News Sunday that, unlike Arizona governor Jan Brewer, a woman has bigger cojones than the president when it comes to dealing with illegal immigration.

Like a Woman
Another way to suggest that a male politician is sexually attracted to other men is to liken him to a woman. Massachusetts Bay colonists mocked British customs officials by questioning their masculinity. John McCain’s 2008 campaign once called Obama “fussy” and “hysterical,” and in an ad compared him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Maureen Dowd, who trots out this bait all too often, referred to then-candidate Obama as “a diffident debutante,” and an obsessive “starlet” with a “feminine management style.” She had competition from Tucker Carlson, who once suggested Obama’s effeminacy was obvious in the then-candidate’s  book-club attendance—anti-intellectualism is implicit in the Effete Elite bait. Blogger John Aravosis summed-up the Like a Woman bait when he wrote of the Obama smears, he “is prone to hysteria, and reminds you of ditzy blonde chicks. Sorry, but that’s a stereotypical gay guy.”

Among the sillier cases of baiting in recent history is the attention journalists and right-wing pundits paid in 2004 to John Kerry’s Francophilia. Men’s rights site mensnewsdaily.com titled an article, “Men Are From Mars, John Kerry Is From Paris.” Rush Limbaugh repeatedly referred to Kerry as “Monsieur Kerry” and “Jean Cheri,” writing Kerry off both figuratively (calling up some Americans’ notion that French men have innate homosexual leanings) and literally (Jean Cheri translates to “Dear John”).

The New York Times may have helped spread the smear by quoting an unnamed GOP source saying that Kerry “looked French,” a play on Kerry’s French relatives and Swiss boarding-school education. The conceit worked well with the GOP’s 2004 strategy to distinguish itself, the party of manly men, from the party of liberal flip-floppers. When the New York Times covered it yet again, Roger Cohen further added to the image of Kerry’s effeminacy by quoting a Republican National Committee spokeswoman noting Kerry’s “fondness for brie and Evian.”

The Democratic Version
The right is not always the source of homophobic messaging. Gay-baiting has a long bipartisan history. Despite the fact that most LGBT votes and campaign contributions—fondly known as the GayTM—go to Democrats, Democratic pols engage in gay-baiting almost as often as their Republican counterparts, and their baits can be far more diabolical. Take, for instance, the 2002 U.S. Senate race in Montana between Democrat incumbent Max Baucus and Republican challenger Mike Taylor. The Montana Democratic Party sponsored an ad showing Taylor, who owned a hair salon in the 1980s, applying lather to a man’s face as part of a shaving demonstration. The ad concludes, “That’s not how we do business here in Montana.”

In the face of this betrayal by their supposed representatives, LGBT advocates often are reluctant to protest, not wanting to hurt the Democratic candidate’s chances. If the Republican victim protests—Taylor called the implications “loathsome”—critics turn his objections back on him. Why is looking gay “despicable”? Taylor was asked. He quickly withdrew from the race, after rephrasing his objection to completely sidestep the true meaning of the ad. “Are they saying someone from my field in not qualified to be senator?” he asked.

At least since the 19th century, opponents, journalists, and others have called attention to certain male political figures’ aristocratic upbringing and manners, their Ivy League or equivalent educations, and their epicurean tastes—also associated with gay men. The goal of this bait isn’t necessarily to make voters believe the target is gay, only to make them think he possesses negative, stereotypically gay male qualities.

In the 1840s, supporters of Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison described incumbent Democratic president Martin Van Buren as “luxury-loving.” Boston’s pro-Whig Atlas described Van Buren as a “dandy” in “nicely plaited ruffles,” who was “leading off a minuet” while Harrison fought the War of 1812. The Harrison slogan “Van Van, you’re a used-up man,” suggested squandered masculinity—whether on frivolous pursuits or fellow men was left to the imagination.

All of which bears a striking similarity to the ad all but one of Texas’ major newspapers ran three weeks ago calling incumbent Republican governor Rick Perry a coward. Funded by Back to Basics, a political action committee formed by Texas Democrats this year, the ad describes the governor, “When he’s not in San Francisco … Perry’s … flipping through the pages of his Food and Wine magazine … in his fancy … rental mansion.” This bait sticks not just because it is blatantly coded—”San Francisco,” “Food and Wine,” “fancy,”—or because it could also be cross-listed under “weak” and “effeminate” (the ad concludes, “Tell Rick Perry to stop cowering and face Texans like a man”)—but because it refreshes public memory of the already existing, unsubstantiated rumors that Perry is gay. In 2004 the Austin Chronicle’s Michael King reported the rumors in a way that both did and didn’t discredit them, describing them as based on “no evidence … whatsoever” but “extraordinary in their baroque detail and remarkable persistence.” LGBT rights organizations didn’t object, probably because they are so eager to see a Democrat in office, especially given the Texas Democratic Party’s recent revision of its platform to explicitly support “repeal of discriminatory laws and policies against members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.”

All the Single Ladies
Also known as the sporty/brainy-ladies-with-short-haircuts-and-no-kiddos bait. If a single woman rises to power in politics, her sexual orientation is assumed to be fodder for the rumor mill. Discussing Janet Napolitano on her nighttime talk show, Joy Behar of TheView asked two gay male guests, “Isn’t she gay?” In 2009, the New York Times Magazine came as close as it ever has to asking a politician directly whether she’s gay when Deborah Solomon put to Napolitano this nonquestion: “Men don’t know what to make of women who choose to be single. Rumors of lesbianism have dogged women in politics like you, Condoleezza Rice and Ann Richards,” thereby re-baiting both Rice and the late Texas governor. Napolitano in return gave a nonanswer: “I think the more people get to know a person, the less that becomes an issue.”

Certain tropes—athletics, pant-suits, glasses, for instance—really help get a single-lady bait off the ground, and even the most dignified news organizations often can’t resist playing along. The Wall Street Journal decided to announce Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation proceedings alongside a photo of Kagan in her softball-playing days on its front page, and throughout the 1990s, Janet Reno’s size and outdoorsiness were fodder for jokes around Washington and, of course, on Saturday Night Live. Journalist Michael Lacey once led a piece with the statement, “If Janet Napolitano isn’t a lesbian, I’ll eat your hat. She is a walking, one-woman LPGA tour.” Media outlets ran articles on Rice’s hardcore workout regimen. (The Rice rumor was also a spectacular example of the media re-laying the bait. The Times of London concluded its piece on the rumor with this bit of gossip from a washingtonpost.com commenter, “It is widely believed in gay circles that Condi is a lesbian.”)

Unruly Wife
This rumor insinuates that a political wife who refuses to allow her ambitions to be overwhelmed by her husband’s—who in this sense acts like a single lady—must be a lesbian. Hillary Clinton has been a victim of this bait throughout her career. The same Christian Action Network ad that announced the rumor of her lesbianism also announced, “It is rumored that Hillary Clinton will leave her husband upon taking office.”

The ploy, however, is age-old. For an example, look to our friends the French. Compared with Clinton’s, Marie Antoinette’s behavior was proto-Gaga in its shock value, and the rumors about France’s last queen were equally salacious. While M.A. wore the crown, anti-royalists circulated pornographic pamphlets suggesting that she conducted lesbian and bisexual orgies at court. Here’s an excerpt:

The Court lost no time going a la mode;
Every woman turned both tribade [lesbian] and slut:
No children were born; it was easier that way:
A libertine finger took the place of the prick.

The intended message was that if Louis couldn’t satisfy, impregnate, or control his woman, he must be equally impotent as a ruler. It also portrayed the queen herself, in her exuberant disregard for court propriety, as a threat to the social and political order.

Lifelong Bachelor
The newspapers of the late 1700s were filled with verse mocking bachelors’ supposed moral degeneracy. But mentioning a politician’s single status didn’t necessarily suggest that he slept with men, says historian John Gilbert McCurdy. The implication was slightly more pronounced in the 19th century. When James Buchanan, the only bachelor president in American history, ran for office in 1850, the press alleged that his unmarried status made him an unfit executive. “He had no taste for matrimony, which plainly implies a lack of some essential quality,” declared the New York Herald. “If he is elected, he will be the first President who shall carry into the White House, the crude and possibly the gross tastes and experiences of a bachelor.” It’s not clear to historians whether “gross tastes” meant sodomy or just loose women.

In the 20th century, references to a politician being a bachelor more explicitly raised a rainbow flag. According to historian Claire Bond Potter, the public easily believed rumors that the founding director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was gay because they felt that, “regardless of how many experts and former FBI officials denied it … as a lifelong bachelor he was obviously not normal.” When recently retired justice David Souter was first appointed to the Supreme Court, he was also the target of the bachelor bait. Almost no media coverage of the repeated baiting of Lindsey Graham fails to mention his single status, as though to explain the provenance of the bait.

Before he came out, Ken Mehlman was often referred to as a bachelor in the press. In 2004, gay activist and journalist Michael Signorile wrote, “Mehlman must understand why his being a 37-year-old ‘bachelor’ who refuses to answer questions about his sexual orientation is a tip-off.”

Lavender Scare
The early 1950s were consumed by not just the Red Scare but what scholar David K. Johnson refers to as the “Lavender Scare.” In 1950, the State Department fired 91 “peculiars” solely on the basis of their suspected homosexuality. The Republican Party distributed a letter to thousands of members informing them, “sexual perverts  … have infiltrated our government,” and were “perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists.” The equation of homosexuality with communist sympathy was a favorite refrain of Joseph McCarthy, who said in a speech he gave in 1950 to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, “Communists and queers … have American people in a hypnotic trance.” According to Johnson, amid the fear mongering of the 50s, this correlation seemed plausible to the public. Both communism and homosexuality, Johnson writes, “seemed to comprise hidden subcultures with their own meeting places, cultural codes, and bonds of loyalty.”

It was in this context that Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic Illinois governor who ran against Dwight Eisenhower for president in 1952 and 1956, became one of the highest profile victims of this brand of bait. It’s unclear who started the rumor that Stevenson was gay, but we do know that J. Edgar Hoover kept a secret file on Stevenson from 1952 onwards and added the candidate to the FBI’s file of “sexual deviants.” According to David Johnson, the rumor was widespread enough that the tabloid Confidential ran a story titled, “How That Stevenson Rumor Started.” To Confidential’s credit, the article never revealed the content of the smear, and yet the editors were certain that anyone in any supermarket checkout line would know exactly the rumor to which the title referred.

But even in the 50s, smearing a political figure as homosexual as a way of casting him or her as a political subversive—without evidence that he was either—was nothing new. In 1751, the Boston Evening Post published a doggerel explicitly accusing the Freemasons of homosexual activity. Because the Masons were an international secret society, the “Continentals,” colonists pushing for independence from British control, distrusted them.

“I’m sure our TRUNNELS look’d as clean
As if they ne’er up A—se had been;
For when we use ‘em, we take care
To wash ‘em well, and give ‘em Air,
Then lock ‘em up in our own Chamber,
Ready to TRUNNEL the next Member.”

According to historian Thomas Foster, the poem also included the line “we don’t use TRUNNELS with a Sister,” indicating also a disinterest in women.

Black and Gay!
The 1983 Mississippi gubernatorial race between Democrat Bill Allain and Republican Leon Bramlett saw one of the most sordid and elaborate gay-baiting campaigns ever initiated. Rather than limit themselves to an ad or speech, a small group of Bramlett’s donors and supporters hired a private eye to investigate Allain. The investigator collected signed statements from three young black transvestites vowing that Allain, the popular attorney general, had on numerous occasions paid them for sex. During the ensuing controversy, the Bramlett supporters paid the prostitutes’ room and board. According to the New York Times, the bait’s masterminds also had statements from police saying they had observed Allain driving through bad neighborhoods in a way “consistent with solicitation of male prostitutes,” which sounds rather interpretive. The bait was an attempt to appeal not just to voters’ homophobia but to their racism, specifically a repulsion at miscegenation.

Far from recognizing the whole ordeal as offensive to homosexuals and African-Americans, Allain defended himself against the “vicious, malicious” insinuations that he slept with black men and associated with transvestites with the declaration, “No one looking at me … could possibly believe or even remotely consider the idea that I might be a homosexual, much less a perverted deviant who would pay for sex with these people.” Divorced Allain instead read the shenanigans as a bachelor bait, telling supporters, “our people do not care … whether you are single or divorced, but they do object to the kind of campaign like we have had to endure,”

To further clear his name, Allain submitted to and passed a polygraph test, and went on to win by a wide margin, capturing the majority of the black vote.

Radical Outing
Since the 1980s, a small group of gay journalists and activists, especially Michael Signorile, Mike Rogers, John Aravosis, and John Byrne, have sought to out closeted gay politicians who oppose gay rights. Kirby Dick’s 2009 documentary Outrage was about their mission and the debate around it. Openly gay Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank defends it, as does Andrew Sullivan. Others, like the Log Cabin Republicans, maintain that every individual has the right to come out of the closet in his or her own time.

Outing is distinct from baiting because it usually isn’t couched in euphemisms. Since explicitly stating that someone is gay when he’s not is still grounds for a libel suit; the outer is more likely than the average baiter to be telling the truth and have some evidence to prove it. Outing activists rarely renege on their claims, and in many cases they have successfully elicited a confirmation from the target. Signorile successfully outed Malcolm Forbes, Steve Forbes’ father, and Mark Buse, John McCain’s chief of staff. In 2004 Rogers outed Dan Gurley, the RNC’s deputy field director under Mehlman.

Outing belongs in the taxonomy of gay baits because, barring evidence like Mark Foley’s e-mails to congressional pages or tapes that emerged in 2004 of then-Congressman Ed Schrock soliciting sex from gay prostitutes, an out stands little more chance of confirmation by the target than the average bait. Closeted folks who don’t break the law often come out in their own time, as Ken Mehlman did, denying or refusing to comment on charges from the likes of Rogers and Signorile’s until the opportune moment strikes. California congressman David Dreier, whom L.A. Weekly allegedly outed in 2004, has never responded to the charges and continues to vote against gay rights at almost every opportunity.

One current target, Florida governor Charlie Crist, who is running for the Senate this year as an independent, maintains that he is straight, and probably no one will be able to prove differently. Crist has suddenly endorsed same-sex adoption, civil unions, and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a near 180-degree shift from his earlier positions. Clever ploy, or is he telling us something? Someone please just ask him.

Click here to read an essay on the history of political gay-baiting.

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