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By Paula Martinac
McGreevey causes grief
New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey’s self-outing may ease the emotional burden of living in the closet, which he has endured for years. But in the current climate of antigay baiting, McGreevey’s “personal” revelation politically impacts a community he has never been – and may never be – part of.
McGreevey was annoyingly vague about why he was resigning, although the reasons will undoubtedly be revealed soon; speculation runs high that he is stepping down because an imbroglio much bigger than a sex scandal will be unfolding. In a way, it’s a bizarre kind of progress when being gay is viewed as the good news preceding some unspecified bad news to come.
Unfortunately for gay people, though, McGreevey chose to lump his departure from office together with a tortured assertion of being “a gay American.” And worse, he used the word “shamefully” to describe his affair with a man, although my guess is that it’s the extramarital nature of it that he is ashamed of.
Given McGreevey’s choice of timing and words, straight and gay people alike were justifiably confused about why he was resigning. After all, New Jersey is not Mississippi. Indeed, Jersey commuters interviewed on their way home from work in Manhattan made remarks to “New York Newsday” like, “He resigned because he is gay, but why?” and “There’s a lot of people in politics who are homosexuals, so what the heck.” The National Stonewall Democrats’ one-sentence statement also seemed to assume McGreevey had resigned out of deep shame: the group’s executive director wrote that he looked forward to a time when being gay “is simply an honest component of daily life and no longer a consideration in public service.”
As a consequence of McGreevey’s obfuscation, the mainstream press has been rife with misleading headlines like “N.J. Governor Resigns Over Homosexual Affair” and “Gay Affair Ends Career.” It’s no wonder that most gay leaders have chosen to steer a broad course around the controversy, being careful not to embrace the governor and only issuing brief, cautious statements of concern. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said, for example, that “our hearts go out” to him, while the Human Rights Campaign hoped that he and his family “will come to a place of understanding.”
Other gay groups have been forced to try to clean up the mess McGreevey’s “personal” statement makes for our movement. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association hurriedly issued an advisory to the mainstream media requesting “caution in framing the reasons for McGreevey’s resignation,” as it is “an oversimplification to say McGreevey resigned solely because he is gay.”
The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, whose mission is to help elect openly gay people to public office, also undertook damage control. The Victory Fund bemoaned the governor’s lack of honesty with his family and issued a reminder that “over 275 openly gay and lesbian officials serve in public office across the United States, from city councils, to county commissions, to state senates, to the U.S. House of Representatives. The vast majority…ran for office and serve openly with little criticism or extra attention from the public.”
Right now I feel more sympathy for the Victory Fund and all the wonderful lesbian and gay candidates it supports than for New Jersey’s misguided governor. In the minds of many Americans with limited knowledge of gay people, McGreevey will now be conflated with “Gay Politician,” the kind of guy who hides his “shameful” secret, gets the underqualified object of his desire a lucrative, taxpayer-funded job, and then is forced out of office by threat of exposure, causing his family great emotional pain. (Never mind how many politicians are guilty of a heterosexual version of the same thing.) At the same time, hundreds of lesbians and gay men are McGreevey’s polar opposites: they’ve chosen to be honest and out as they pursue public office, forthrightly making their way up the political ladder one rung at a time.
Consider, for example, a very different “Gay Politician.” Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) didn’t catapult into the U.S. Congress. She started her political career on the Madison City Council, then went on to the County Board of Supervisors and the Wisconsin State Assembly before making a run for Congress as an out lesbian. There are many similar stories of gay politicos who chose a slower path to higher office, taking small, incremental steps that many heterosexual politicians don’t have to because they aren’t contending with society’s homophobia. George W. Bush, for example, went from unsuccessful businessman to governor of Texas to president in the blink of an eye.
I am confident that eventually one of the Tammy Baldwins of our community will make it all the way to the governor’s mansion of some state. And that election – unlike the strange coming out of Jim McGreevey – will be a triumph for the gay community.