In July of 2004, as 11 anti-gay marriage ballot campaigns competed for conservative attention at the polls, I started BlogActive, a site dedicated to exposing anti-gay politicians who were themselves having secret sexual encounters with other men. For years, I had known of prominent gay politicians who were in the closet but worked for homophobic causes…
DISCLAIMER: Normally, I have a huge problem with outing someone, or anyone, as a matter of fact. Just wanted to post this disclaimer before sharing the post below.
In July of 2004, as 11 anti-gay marriage ballot campaigns competed for conservative attention at the polls, I started BlogActive, a site dedicated to exposing anti-gay politicians who were themselves having secret sexual encounters with other men.
For years, I had known of prominent gay politicians who were in the closet but worked for homophobic causes in the interest, it seemed to me, of their political careers. And so, drawing on sources within and outside Washington, I began using my blog to expose these congressmen and their high-profile staffers. A media frenzy ensued. Within two days of the site’s launch, the Washington Post published one article; another followed just six days later. Local and national television outlets called, challenging me to defend and explain my actions. In one early interview, Bill O’Reilly said to me, “People’s sex life should have nothing to do with any kind of a policy.”
I agreed, I said. This wasn’t about private sex lives—it was about hypocrisy. As I saw it, all I was doing was reporting the truth. And 10 years later, after my reports on dozens of politicians and staffers, I believe we’re better off for it, with a more open discussion of anti-gay politicians who lead double lives.
Think back to 2004. It was the year after Massachusetts had become the first state to legalize gay marriage, activists were celebrating in the streets and community leaders were taking well-deserved victory laps. I was among them; I had worked at Harvey Milk High School in New York, where I learned about abused LGBT youth, and at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington, D.C., where I saw the fruits of activism first-hand. (At Greenpeace, working for other progressive causes, I had learned another important lesson—how powerful the media spotlight can be.) For LGBT supporters like me, it finally felt like a corner had been turned.
Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s political adviser, might have been celebrating too—but for entirely different reasons. What same-sex couples and their supporters saw as the slow progress of history, Bush’s political mastermind used as a weapon in the 2004 campaign. Rove wanted conservatives, especially conservative Christians, to turn out to vote for the incumbent president, and so encouraged Bush to endorse an amendment banning same-sex marriage, which he did early that year. It was a brilliant strategy: Rove needed a bogeyman to get people out to the polls, and marriage equality was it.
With Rove, conservative Christian activist Ralph Reed and Bush re-election chief Ken Mehlman running campaigns based on fear, I decided I’d had enough. I knew these three men had a bevy of gay men working with them, despite their position on same-sex marriage. Mehlman himself was gay—the man atop the entire 2004 GOP operation that was pushing for those anti-gay marriage ballot measures, and who would become chairman of the Republican National Committee the next year. (I reported on Mehlman in October 2006, and he came out himself in 2010.) I felt I had to correct the record.
At the time, I had been using the web for smaller citizen engagement projects, and I knew I could influence corporations and attract media attention from places like the Washington Post, National Post and New York Times. Take those skills and throw in a little creative marketing, and BlogActive was born.
One of the first reports I did once the site launched was about a senior staffer to Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who had one of the most homophobic records in the Senate. (Two years later, Inhofe would declare on the Senate floor that he was “really proud to say that in the recorded history of our family, we’ve never had a divorce or any kind of homosexual relationship.”) Before I published the story, the staffer, whom I had talked to three days earlier, called and urged me not to run it. “I have a right to privacy,” he told me. “It’s no one’s business that I am gay.” I found it hard to take the man’s protestations seriously when he had appeared as a cover model for a gay Washington, D.C., magazine.
The reaction to these early posts was mixed, with some people backing me and others yammering that I was invading politicians’ right to privacy. To the latter group, I pointed out that these very politicians were making my private life—and the lives of millions of other LGBT Americans—a very public political issue.
I also noted an important distinction between outing and reporting. Outing is the indiscriminate disclosure of someone’s sexual orientation without his or her consent. Reporting is not at all indiscriminate—and it has a higher purpose. What my blog did was reveal the hypocrisy of politicians, to show that people who control the nation’s political and legal systems often have different standards for themselves. “People have the right to privacy,” Barney Frank, the retired gay congressman from Massachusetts said in Outrage, the 2009 documentary that was inspired by my work. “But they don’t have the right to hypocrisy.”
Part of the problem at the time was the media, which was culpable of a kind of journalistic homophobia that I wanted to correct. If journalists really wanted to treat gay and straight subjects equally, I reasoned, they should report on them with equal scrutiny too. The media have always written stories about straight politicians who take hypocritical positions on different issues—a secure-our-borders conservative who employs undocumented immigrants or a politician who argues against a woman’s right to choose while secretly arranging for an abortion for his mistress. So why not do the same for gay politicians?
I am often asked, “Does reporting on these closeted homophobes really accomplish anything?” Of course it does. Like every movement, no one action or reaction seals the deal. Pressure must come from all sides: legal, political, activist and media. In creating BlogActive, I decided to combine two of them and engage in activist journalism, a form of reporting that depends on transparency and has an unabashed political goal. And the results were real.
Take the case of Rep. Ed Schrock of Virginia, who argued that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was too lenient and also happened to be president of Virginia Beach’s Atlantic Shores Baptist Church. Late in the summer of 2004, during the GOP convention, I released recordings (from an anonymous tipster) of Schrock seeking sex with a man from a hook-up phone service. Schrock did not claim responsibility for the tapes, but multiple sources insisted on their authenticity to me. And the congressman promptly pulled out of his reelection campaign, citing allegations that “called into question” his ability to serve. He was replaced in the years to come by a series of House members who were, relative to Schrock, quiet on DADT, which Congress has of course since repealed. Had his story gone unreported, Schrock would most likely still occupy this solidly Republican seat.
The case I consider my most successful, though, is that of Paul Koering, a former state senator from Minnesota. I first called Koering in 2005, after I had learned that he was gay, and we chatted for about two hours. I told him about my work, and he told me about his upbringing in a religious Catholic family and how it shaped his conservative views, including on gay marriage, which he officially opposed at the time. I had several more conversations with him after that, and each time he shared more about his experiences as a closeted gay politician. I could sense the pain in his voice.
“Senator,” I said in our fifth or sixth conversation. “No matter how you vote on the upcoming marriage amendment in the Minnesota senate, I will not report on your being in the closet. You are a man on a journey that I know will end with success.” Citing my work, Koering shortly thereafter voted against his entire caucus in the state senate (including Michele Bachmann) on the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, before walking out of the chamber into the Minneapolis capitol rotunda and coming out as gay to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Following his disclosure, Koering was reelected the next year to the state senate and later to his county Board of Supervisors.
I could go on. There was also Dan Gurley, a highly placed GOP staffer. After I wrote about him, he left the Republican National Committee and went on to become a leader in the fight for equality in North Carolina. Mehlman, for his part, later became an advocate for marriage equality, including publicly supporting the group behind one of last year’s gay rights cases in the Supreme Court.
Next week will mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of BlogActive. Despite the encouragement I’ve gotten from many to keep it alive, it has been dormant for the past three years. I have left it up as an archive of my work—and a reminder of another era in our nation’s history. Thankfully, there is much less need for the blog today. No longer is my community under constant threat of having discrimination against us written into the constitution. Closeted anti-gay politicians are able to inflict less damage, and we have a national media much more open to reporting on these stories. I have no regrets at all about the work I did.
My friend Elizabeth Birch, the former head of the Human Rights Campaign, says that when it comes to the fight for marriage equality, “Nothing happens in a vacuum. This struggle will be won one kitchen table at a time.”
At too many tables, our enemies are also one of us. We should not—and cannot—let that go unchallenged.
Michael Rogers is director of Netroots Connect, a non-profit supporting online journalism and activism, and a partner and managing director of Raw Story Media, which owns the online news publication the Raw Story.
Source: Michael Rogers for Politico