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When I called the Christian Coalition of Florida last week, the organization's deputy director, Carolyn Kunkle, answered.
Without missing a beat, Kunkle said, "I imagine you're calling about Mark Foley because he is a homosexual?"
Kunkle was right. Foley, the nine-year conservative Republican U.S. representative out of Lake Worth, is gay. That is no revelation to political and media types. Everyone knows it, though no newspaper outside the gay press has ever really touched the issue.
"It's pretty common knowledge about him," says Wilton Manors councilman Craig Sherritt, a Democrat who is openly gay. "I think every politician of every stripe knows about him." Foley has never said it, and there is no photographic proof, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. It's been an open secret for the past decade. But what of it? Gays and lesbians in office represent nothing more than a healthy democracy at work. And, in some cases, it's OK for them to remain in the closet. But that's no longer the case for Foley. His voting record on gay rights has become a controversial issue. He's campaigning across Florida for the U.S. Senate. The people have a right to know. And dancing around the truth is just getting too weird to abide.
On April 26, Sun-Sentinelcolumnist Buddy Nevins wrote that Foley's Senate bid might fail solely because of his gay-rights votes. What Nevins didn't bring up was that the congressman himself is gay, and the avoidance of that giant, pink elephant in the room gave the column an almost surreal feel, like a throwback to 1950s television censorship, when Elvis had no legs and Lucille Ball couldn't say she was pregnant.
The most convincing and direct evidence comes from a former family friend of Foley's named Tracy Thorne. Back in 1992, Thorne, then a Navy lieutenant, famously declared he was gay on Nightline, an event that brought the issue of gays and the military to the fore and helped spur President Clinton's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
In 1996, Thorne demanded that Foley come out of the closet. The Palm Beach Post refused to run a guest editorial Thorne wrote about Foley, but a national gay publication, the Advocate, quoted him in an article that questioned Foley's sexuality, though it fell short of outing him.
I found Thorne in Virginia, where he works as an attorney. He told me he still believes that Foley should be true to the people. "By refusing to be honest about who he is," he told me, "Foley is sending a message to gay kids and his fellow Republicans that being gay is something to be ashamed of."
So how is Thorne so certain that Foley, who spoke at Thorne's father's funeral in 1994, is gay? Other than its being basically common knowledge, he says that Foley and his boyfriend visited Thorne's family home in the Florida Keys during the early 1990s and that they talked about it at the time. "The relationship was obvious," Thorne said. "It was no big deal."
This is the first time Thorne has publicly told of his firsthand knowledge. Another source told me that Sherritt saw Foley at the Copa, a gay bar in Fort Lauderdale. But the councilman refused to confirm that detail. "I'm not saying I have, and I'm not saying I haven't," Sherritt told me. "I don't think it's my place to out him. I don't see the need for him to come out of the closet, though I do personally wish he would."
The issue was first raised back in 1994, during the unmarried Foley's maiden run for Congress (after he had served as a Lake Worth city councilman and state senator). His right-wing opponent in the Republican primary, John Anastasio, a Port St. Lucie attorney, sent out mailings alleging that Foley was gay, basing the information on a clipping from a gay publication. None of the big daily newspapers reported on Anastasio's claim (though the Palm Beach Post did write that Anastasio was spreading "hate and lies").
"I felt it was a valid issue back then because here was an underground, Log Cabin Republican running in a very conservative district," Anastasio told me. "He was conveying an image that wasn't correct."
Anastasio's claim was repeated in the Stuart News, though the article didn't attempt to out Foley. "I like women," the congressman said at the time.
It was a Clintonian quasi-denial given in an offhand way in a softball story. The meaning of it may depend on what your definition of like is. While Foley refused to be interviewed for this column, his chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, spent roughly 30 minutes off the record trying to persuade me not to write it. Fordham, who has been working for Foley since 1994, wouldn't confirm or deny that his boss is gay.
The issue arose again in 1996, when Foley voted for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which held that homosexuals couldn't be legally married. Many gays, including Thorne, felt Foley had betrayed them. An article in the Advocateabout the vote mentioned Thorne's contention but didn't describe how Thorne knew about Foley's sexuality. It stated that "several people close to the 41-year-old from West Palm Beach described him as a gay man." Foley supplied a written response to the magazine but didn't answer the big question.