• U.S.

Not Being True to Himself

5 minute read
John Cloud

Mark Foley wants you to know that he is a gay man.” That’s what Foley’s lawyer said last week, in an echo of former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s line “I am a gay American.” But the most relevant fact about Foley was not that he is gay–it’s that he spent a lifetime hiding it. True, in recent years the Congressman was seen in the company of a male dermatologist in his district. Even so, in 2003 Foley revealed the deep shame he felt about his homosexuality when he called the rumor mill about his gay life “revolting.” “My mother and father raised me … to believe there are certain things we shouldn’t discuss in public,” he said then. “Some of you may believe that it’s old-fashioned, but I believe those are good ideals.”

If being in the closet is old-fashioned, it’s also profoundly destabilizing. In a forthcoming paper in Psychological Bulletin, John Pachankis of Stony Brook University cites studies showing that concealing a nonheterosexual orientation is associated with more emotional distress and depression than disclosing the truth. There’s even evidence that cloaking your identity can impair your physical health. Which makes sense: it’s surely stressful to allow others to define you all your life. “Being gay and closeted doesn’t guarantee that you’ll do things you shouldn’t do, but it increases the likelihood that you might,” Representative Barney Frank told National Journal last week. “That’s what happened when I used a prostitute,” he said, referring to a scandal that led to a 1990 House reprimand.

People who know Foley have pointed out that his father was a conservative Catholic and an ex-Marine. They note that his political career didn’t take off until he joined the G.O.P., whose position on homosexuality is, roughly, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” But plenty of gay people summon the strength to be honest with conservative fathers. And Foley won his 2004 race, 68% to 32%. “There’s a way he could have [come out],” says Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a nonpartisan gay group. “It’s a very different world now, and it is certainly a different world for a guy from Palm Beach, Fla.” Two Republican Congressmen have come out and been re-elected in the past 12 years. By contrast, Foley was unwilling to risk losing his D.C. life–the Hollywood visitors, the parties, the lambent glow of public attention that enchanted him.

To be sure, Foley might have sent the messages even if he had lived a life of integrity rather than one etiolated by lies. But it’s hard to imagine that if he and his doctor friend had an open, conventional gay relationship, he would have been IMing teenagers at dinnertime. He may have abdicated his moral responsibility to the pages, but he also abdicated moral responsibility to himself.

And yet. It’s not excusing Foley’s sins to note that he wasn’t the first–or the worst–predator in congressional history. Some of these guys have actually been re-elected. Brooklyn Democrat Fred Richmond admitted soliciting sex from a 16-year-old boy in 1978; he apologized and won 77% of the vote that fall. More famously, Gerry Studds, another Democrat, served in Congress for 13 years after admitting he had sex with a 17-year-old. Republican Bob Bauman was nearly re-elected in 1980, just four weeks after he was charged with soliciting a 16-year-old. (In his 1986 book, The Gentleman from Maryland, Bauman admits soliciting sex, though he says nothing about the age of “the muscular young blond.”) Bauman has striking similarities with Foley: both Catholic; both the sons of conservative fathers; both self-described alcoholics; both closeted most of their lives.

Today it’s inconceivable that Foley could retake his seat; in the wake of the priest scandals, we have never been more vigilant about pedophiles. But according to the clinical definition, Foley wasn’t exhibiting pedophilia. Pedophiles desire the prepubescent, and Foley’s boys were 16, the legal age of sexual consent in most states. It’s also not illegal under federal law to have virtual exchanges with a minor unless they lead to sex. “People here are challenged on how to find a violation of a federal statute,” says an official familiar with the Foley investigation.

At the very least, we want to call Foley sick, but is he? “Any man can find an older adolescent attractive,” says Dr. Fred Berlin of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma. “But you do get a disorder where people are recurrently drawn to adolescents and have no interest in people their own age.” Again, that seems not to describe Foley. So what is he? A pathetic flaneur who exchanged louche messages with unattainable youths rather than own up to his homosexuality. The FBI is apparently looking into reports that at least one boy responded to Foley’s IMs only as a prank, to embarrass the Congressman. He deserved no better.

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