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The Baiting Game

A New Twist On Sexual Politics: Some Democrats Are HInting That Their G.O.P. Opponents Are Gay

By Karen Tumulty

[TIME Magazine]

(TIME, October 14) -- Washington thought it was done with gay issues for this year. Congress had passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to ban same-sex marriage, and the Senate narrowly defeated a bill to ban antigay job discrimination. But gay politics of a different kind have come back to haunt Republicans and Democrats alike. In recent weeks some Republicans have found that the issue of sexual orientation--specifically their own--has re-entered the campaign. And Democrats are being accused of raising the issue to play to homophobic voters, even while their party presents itself as sympathetic to gay rights.

One such case is in Columbus, Ohio. For almost 14 years it had passed without comment that the local Congressman, John Kasich, the powerful chairman of the House Budget Committee, stretches his paycheck by sharing a Virginia town house for the two or three nights a week that Congress is in session. His housemate? His male chief of staff. Last month Cynthia Ruccia, Kasich's Democratic challenger, called for a Justice Department investigation of what she said was "a serious appearance of impropriety" because Kasich, who is divorced, lived with someone whose government salary he controls.

That was the official question. What it unofficially implied was that the two men might be otherwise involved. Though Ruccia denies that she intended to leave that impression, Kasich's office inevitably found itself having to deny that either man is gay. No federal investigation is likely. (To begin with, the Justice Department does not examine "appearances.") As it happens, Ruccia had long been a high-profile supporter of gay rights and Kasich an occasional ally at best. (He voted yes on AIDS funding, no on gay marriage.) But by raising the issue, she stands to benefit from whatever doubt she creates in the minds of voters hostile to gays.

Even Democrats were crying foul. "It was the worst sort of gutter politics and gay baiting," says Bob Fitrakis, Kasich's 1992 Democratic opponent. And the gay community in Kasich's congressional district also sensed an invitation to gay baiting. "It's disappointing to see it from a party that has been the most progressive on the issues," says Phil Martin, president of Stonewall Union, Ohio's largest gay-rights organization, which counts Ruccia as a member.

South Dakota is the scene of another such case, bizarre in its own way. Last week Republican Senator Larry Pressler spent the opening minutes of his debate with Democratic challenger Tim Johnson insisting that "some of the things that have been said in the campaign in the last two weeks of a personal nature are despicable and totally false." Pressler didn't spell out what those were, but most South Dakotans would have known. In September, former Senator James Abourezk, a Democrat, had arranged for Alexander Cockburn, a columnist for the left-leaning weekly Nation, to make several appearances around the state. Why? In his 1996 book Washington Babylon, Cockburn asserts that Pressler had hastily married "amid speculation that he was gay." The only source cited by Cockburn and co-author Ken Silverstein was Steve Gobie, the former homosexual prostitute who entertained clients at the Capitol Hill apartment of Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank, though without Frank's knowledge.

Why are these episodes happening now? Partly because the defeats on same-sex marriage and workplace discrimination raised bitter questions about whether closeted gay lawmakers were guilty of hypocrisy. "If Sarah Brady owned a handgun, would you write about it?" asks Frank, who tumbled out of the closet years ago. Thus Arthur Finkelstein, the mastermind behind the campaigns of antigay conservatives, was outed last month by Boston magazine. And there is the ever more permeable barrier between public discourse and the upwardly churning tides of gossip. At the Washington headquarters of the gay G.O.P. organization Log Cabin Republicans, executive director Richard Tafel says the traffic these days in gay-sex rumors is bumper to bumper, especially on the not exactly authoritative Internet. "These names come out of nowhere," says Tafel. "Rumors have grown exponentially in cyberspace, where you don't have to be responsible for what you say."

As backdrop to the latest episodes of who sleeps with whom, there is also the pre-emptive self-outing of divorced Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe. Two weeks after voting for the bill restricting gay marriage, Kolbe, a Republican, went public with his homosexuality, which had been an open secret around Washington, to pre-empt an article that he knew was coming in the national gay magazine Advocate. Kolbe later won a primary race, but with well under the 80% margin he had enjoyed over the same candidate two years ago.

Maybe the worst thing about campaign-season outing--whether it brings out the truth or spreads a usable lie--is that it depends upon a climate in which simply labeling someone a homosexual is an insult. The tactic won't work on the day when calling someone gay might be an error but not an accusation. "The sad thing in all this," says Tafel, "is that everybody involved believes that being 'charged' with being gay is bad." Republicans may have fostered that climate. Will Democrats be any better if they turn it to their advantage?

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