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The GOP Closet

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The GOP Closet

I know what it’s like to be a secretly gay conservative on the Hill. And I know that the Republican Party can overcome the Foley scandal.

WEB-EXCLUSIVE COMMENTARY

By Brian O'Leary Bennett

Special to Newsweek

Updated: 3:00 p.m. CT Oct 7, 2006

Oct. 7, 2006 - I know what it's like to be a closeted gay Republican on Capitol Hill. I spent 17 years hiding my sexual orientation while working as an aide to conservative lawmakers in the 1970s and '80s. As I watched the Foley scandal unfold last week, I felt sympathy for other gay members of Congress and staffers. When I was in the closet on Capitol Hill, I was deep in the closet. It was too dangerous for me to socialize. So I never did. I'm not saying I wasn’t ever indiscrete. But it was rare, because that too was risky. Once it almost cost me life in what until now was an untold, unreported hate crime the memories of which were painfully stitched into my scalp in a Fairfax hospital emergency room. But what closeted chief of staff to a leading anti-gay conservative congressman would ever report something like that to the Virginia police? So like other closet-cases before and after me, I lied about what really happened. I’m glad those dreadful, pathetic days of no-win choices are behind me.

Still, to someone who is in the closet today, this current scandal is terrifying because you think someone is going to put a bull’s-eye on you—psychological, physical or economic. Even where I live, in Long Beach, Calif., we hear about religious right lobbyists compiling lists of gay congressional staffers demanding that they be fired. Intimidating stuff when you know our party has a history of scapegoating gays and lesbians at the first sign of election trouble. And there is big trouble in Potomac River city.

I hope a war of introspection and decision is being waged within the minds of my gay GOP brethren who now live fearfully in the closet. Is it really worth it? At some point, you will have to own up to who you are. Or like Foley, former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey and others who walked the razor's edge, you too will slip, fall, and do incalculable damage along the way. I don't care what office you hold. It screws with your head. It's not worth it. How you must long for peace of mind. I remember.

I am always surprised by people’s naiveté when they learn there are gay Republicans working on the Hill, out or not. We’re everywhere. And it’s been my experience it’s generally not a big deal, except if one of us decides to run for office. Then expect a nasty primary. I've been a delegate to five Republican national conventions, three as an openly gay Republican. Conservative members hire us, as do moderates. But because all these Republican officeholders have hired gay staffers does not mean there's some kind of gay mafia at work. This notion that a sinister cabal closes ranks and protects one another at all costs based on sexual orientation is noxious and homophobic. Right or wrong, people act to protect one another out of friendship. It’s funny how we never hear a word about that “hetero mafia” protecting the even longer list of philandering, college-girl skirt-chasing straight members of Congress.

I come from a family of Democrats. My grandfather was head of a printer's union. My dad used to say granddad would be rolling over in his grave if he knew I was a Republican. I went to Sacred Heart Catholic School. I wanted it all—wife, kids, public office. I started with conservative New York Sen. James Buckley in 1973 at age 17 for four great years and worked on the Hill with California Rep. Bob Dornan for 13 more, leaving in late 1989. I liked his conservative principles and appreciated him as a strong Catholic role model. Though it wasn't as acceptable to be openly gay at first, the conflict was mostly in my own head. I just didn't want to believe I was gay.

I stayed in the closet for all the years I worked on the Hill. Later, in 1992, I was the heir apparent to Dornan's congressional seat when he wanted to move into a safer one and I had announced I would run. I had virtually everybody's endorsement to be the Republican nominee. But I also had that terror inside of me that I was going to be found out. When it didn't work out for me to run, I felt a huge relief. The next year, I announced I would run for state Senate in California. By then I had a boyfriend but was still in the closet. I had nearly all the endorsements again—Jack Kemp, Bill Buckley, Bruce Herschensohn, nearly all the Orange County elected officials. But I was being challenged by a multimillionaire who had time and lots of money on his side. So I dropped out. There was a part of me that always made it easy to drop out. It was a relief. Saved from myself. Saved from being found out. Eventually, I gave up on public office and concentrated on my new corporate job, and began to finally deal with my closeted gay life.

I was 39 when I came out. First I told my family. Then, in February 1996, I met with Dornan. We were still close, like family, even though his antagonism toward gays and lesbians was legendary. He'd referred to “lesbian spearchuckers” and notoriously remarked, “Don't use the word gay unless it's an acronym for ‘Got AIDS Yet?’” I was nervous, but I had to tell him I was gay. He hugged me, kissed me on the cheek, and told me he loved me like a son and said that it didn't make a difference. But, of course, I’m convinced it did.

Now I was out to those close to me, but not to everyone. Since I was carrying newsworthy “ex-Dornan chief of staff” baggage, I was looking over my shoulder for some reporter to find me out. The next year I decided to make my story completely public. I told Dornan I wanted to break the story in the Los Angeles Times. He and wife Sallie agreed and in May of 1997 I sat down with veteran Los Angeles Times political reporter Jean Pasco. Because Dornan had been viewed as so anti-gay, it was a huge story, splashed on the front page two days in a row. For me, it was over and liberating. But Dornan was extremely embarrassed when the headlines, TV, radio and columns hit.

Homophobia has many deeply damaging manifestations. The reordering, or worse, dissolution of familial relationships is one of the most profoundly destructive powers it holds over men, in particular. After the stories came out, I felt like I was poison to Dornan. So, despite my efforts, I haven't seen Bob and Sallie Dornan in more than seven years. Our 20-year relationship has never recovered. I grieve for the death of my living second family and miss them still.

I remain a Republican. Sometimes it’s difficult but terror abroad trumps deeply held personal issues I can still fight and win at home. I was one of the Austin 12—a group of gays and lesbians who met with then-Gov. George W. Bush in 2000 in Austin. I liked him then and had great hopes he’d do the right thing. He did. In his first term, he kept all the promises he had made in that meeting and more. But then he cynically decided to back a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage so he could get re-elected. Both the religious right and the gay and lesbian community agree on this much: We know George W. Bush couldn’t care less about the marriage amendment other than as an election year tool.

That’s what makes him such a huge disappointment from the decent man I met on April 13, 2000. So, despite the president saying “be respectful” about the marriage debate, it doesn't mean a damn. He knowingly unleashed these ugly, mean-spirited homophobic forces within elements of the national Republican Party. Worse, he resurrected the now uncontrollable theocratic armies of religiously intolerant political “bullies” (to quote ex-Majority Leader Dick Armey) which the president proudly, and in the tradition of his father, had once muzzled when he launched his compassionate conservatism platform in 2000. The responsibility for any bull’s-eye on gays and lesbians today falls very near the doorstep of the president.

Still, there’s hope. I look forward to the new Republican nominee in 2008. Two of the front-runners, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, have records of more then just tolerance and talk but friendship, respect and accountability. If one of them ends up being the nominee, it’s unlikely either would do a 180 on us. I’ve been a pro-life conservative Republican all my life who happens to be gay. We conservatives start fights, not run from them. It’s worth sticking around the GOP a good while.

Bennett, a former senior executive at Southern California Edison, is now a public affairs consultant in Long Beach, Calif.

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

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