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What Was He Thinking?—A Commentary by Kenji Yoshino '96

The following op-ed originally appeared in the October 8, 2006, issue of the Hartford Courant.

What Was He Thinking?
In Cultivating A Heterosexual Persona, Former Rep. Mark Foley Was Living A Double Life On The Public Stage
By Kenji Yoshino

Here's the burning question about gay politicians: How could Mark Foley or Jim McGreevey have believed in the sustainability of their double lives? Both had routinely acted on their same-sex desires. Both knew public scrutiny is an occupational hazard for politicians. What were they thinking?

For those new to our blue-green planet, Foley is the 52-year-old Republican who resigned his seat in the House of Representatives last week amid claims that he had propositioned male congressional pages. Foley took the occasion of his resignation to come out of the closet. Although Foley's misbehavior came as a shock to many, his homosexuality was not nearly as newsworthy. Gay newspapers had been speculating that he was gay for at least a decade. And Foley and his male partner are well-known in at least some Florida circles.

Nonetheless, Foley has cultivated a heterosexual persona for years. According to one journalist, his home in Washington was filled with photographs of the unmarried Foley with his arm around various attractive women, including actress Heather Locklear. Like others, the journalist found this to be a form of protesting too much, "as if he was going out of his way to prove his heterosexuality." But Foley kept soldiering on, deflecting questions about his orientation as "repulsive" attempts by Democrats to "slur" his good name.

Although the left is gleefully deploying Foley's double life against the right, such denial is not peculiar to conservatives. Rising-star Democrat Jim McGreevey sent shockwaves across the nation on Aug. 12, 2004, when he came out as a "gay American" and resigned as governor of New Jersey. In a memoir published this year, McGreevey admits to having had multiple sexual encounters with men during his tenure.

Like Foley, however, McGreevey thought he could separate his orientation from his office. While he was governor, McGreevey was married to a woman and expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage. In a recent interview, he said that this opposition was an attempt to preserve a straight façade.

Both men are highly intelligent and accomplished. So how could they build their titanic careers without seeing the iceberg in their paths? The answer lies not just in a desire for their true sexuality not to be known, but also in straight society's desire not to know it. We associate this social contract of "don't ask, don't tell" with the military, where it has actually been codified as federal law. But this social contract didn't spring from the head of Congress. It grew organically out of our national culture.

As for "don't tell," it may be that both Foley and McGreevey woke up to find themselves in careers that were hostile to their identities. But that isn't the only possibility: Internalized self-hatred can take many forms. When I first started to realize I was gay, I considered living my adult life in Japan because I thought it would be impossible for me to come out there.

Similarly, I wonder if Foley and McGreevey didn't go into politics in part to foreclose the possibility that they would ever come out. Far from failing to see the tension between being successful in politics and being gay, they may have been relying on that tension to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Turning now to "don't ask," we must recognize how studiously straight society refuses to acknowledge the gays who are in plain sight. Everyone knows there always have been and always will be gays in the military. What's threatening to many service members, however, is not the vague notion of gays in the military, but rather the knowledge that a specific gay person is showering next to them.

As an educator, I feel confident in saying that few things are more powerful than a person's will not to know. For people who didn't want to acknowledge that Foley was gay, a television still of Heather Locklear (from "Melrose Place" or "Scrubs," not "Magnum P.I.") on his piano would probably have been enough.

Foley and McGreevey believed in the sustainability of their double lives because they grew up in an era dominated by the ethic of "don't ask, don't tell." They were not naive men. They were men who relied on a social contract that changed - and is still changing - before their very eyes.

Kenji Yoshino is a professor of law at Yale Law School. His book, "Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights," was published earlier this year by Random House.