Out with the Truth

Would John Ashcroft approve?

When I called the Christian Coalition of Florida last week, the organization's deputy director, Carolyn Kunkle, answered.

"Hi," I said, "my name's Bob Norman with the New Times, and I'm doing a story on Mark Foley's run for the Senate."

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-Sentinel columnist 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 Advocate about 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.

"Frankly, I don't think what kind of personal relationships I have in my private life is of any relevance to anyone else," Foley wrote, adding that the people "are a lot more concerned with issues like how I voted on welfare reform or whether or not Medicare is going to be there when they need it -- not the details of whom I choose to have a relationship with." In the same article, the magazine tried to out Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican. But Kolbe decided to beat them to the punch; he came out and today remains the only openly gay Republican in Congress. The St. Petersburg Times ran a piece based on the Advocate article, but instead of confirming the rumors, the reporter noted rather dismissively that there was no "substantial proof" that Foley is gay.

Also in 1996, New York-based Michelangelo Signorile, a gay columnist, wrote in Out magazine of his attempt to persuade Foley to come out at the Republican National Convention in San Diego:

We lock eyes, and Foley smiles at me and discreetly waves. I pass a note down to him. Congressman, can I steal you away for a minute for a couple of questions?

"Where are you from?" he mouths to me.

"Out magazine," I mouth back.

He smiles, and then, shaking his head, mouths, "Sorry."

Wanting him to feel comfortable, I scribble another note, including my various phone numbers.

We don't have to do anything you don't want to do. We can just talk.

Foley laughs, and gives me the OK sign and a "thank you."

In 2000, the Express, a gay weekly newspaper published by Fort Lauderdale attorney Norm Kent, urged Foley to come out of the closet. "Don't straight people have a right to know if you are gay if you are voting for us?" Kent wrote, addressing Foley. "Don't gay people have a right to know if you are not straight if you are voting against us?"

Though he refuses to answer that question, Foley has rarely turned his back on the gay community. When the parents of Matthew Shepard -- a young gay man who was murdered in Wyoming -- came to West Palm Beach, it was the congressman who escorted them. Perhaps Foley was atoning for a Latin-themed party he held during the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, during which invitee Dick Armey made the infamous homophobic joke that openly gay Democratic Rep. Barney Frank would join a "dick army" if there were one.

Since his much-maligned support for DOMA, Foley has had a very strong voting record on gay-rights issues, backing antidiscrimination legislation, increased AIDS funding, and medical coverage for domestic partners. He counts the pro-gay Human Rights Campaign as one of his largest political contributors, though the vast majority of his campaign money comes from medical, real estate, insurance, and Wall Street interests.

Foley, a deputy whip under rabid right-winger Rep. Tom Delay, is now campaigning across the state in many traditional, rural, Christian strongholds. His pro-gun, anti-immigrant, pro-war, and pro-George W. Bush record is a dream come true for them and stands in contrast to his sharp left turn on gay rights.

As Kent wrote, I believe voters surely have a right to know what motivates Foley's pro-gay rights stance. When the Sun-Sentinel's Nevins brought up Foley's gay-rights voting record during an interview, the congressman's face "darkened" before he said, "I hope people would understand that those votes are fairness issues -- nondiscrimination against employees and things like that."

Those votes, of course, were more likely motivated by his personal life, or if you prefer the cynical view, by a strategy to keep gay constituents at bay so they won't force him out of the closet.

More than truth, history is also at stake. Foley could be, if he were to come out, the first openly gay senator of any party in United States history.

In some parts of the gay community, the reasoning for outing goes like this: Homosexuals form a minority group that is discriminated against (often violently). When gays gain fame for their talents and then keep their sexual identity a secret, they rob the group of that triumph.  

You may think Foley is no Jackie Robinson, but he's getting close to that ballpark.

If Foley tells the truth about himself, then his Senate run will also be a test for the Republican Party. After Republican Sen. Rick Santorum said last month that he believed homosexual acts should be outlawed, the GOP renewed its "inclusiveness" spin. But can Republicans in Florida abide an openly gay candidate? "To be perfectly honest," Broward GOP Chair Kevin Tynan said when I asked that question, "I really don't know."

If Foley comes clean, we'll learn the answer. Hopefully, Foley's coming out wouldn't get in the way of the most important issues in the race, but it could loom large. In fact, his campaign could become a referendum on homosexuality. That would probably be a negative thing, but after Santorum's troubling remarks, maybe it's just what our society needs to really air out the issue.

As for the political damage, Foley has already lost the religious right. The Christian Coalition's Kunkle says she doesn't plan to publish the truth about Foley's sexual identity on millions of voter guides her organization will publish for next year's primary vote. But she will point out that his primary challenger, former congressman Bill McCollum, has a better record, Christian Right-wise, than Foley does.

Even as Kunkle insisted that wouldn't affect the coalition's position, she called Foley's sexual orientation a sin. "It is also a dangerous lifestyle," she told me, "simply because of the high rate of infection and disease."

Norm Kent doesn't believe Foley's coming out would hurt him politically. "I think Republicans will embrace him under their umbrella," said Kent, a Democrat.

Thorne also said he feels that Foley could survive politically. "Mark is an enormously popular congressman despite the fact that most people who know who Mark Foley is -- know that he is gay," Thorne said. "It's been widely speculated and mumbled about for so long, and yet it's not hurt him."

Shane Gunderson, a gay Democratic political activist in Fort Lauderdale, holds the opposite opinion. "It would be political suicide," he says. "He would have to admit that he's hid who he really is. It's not a good value. You have to be true to who you are."

Of course it might damage him politically, at least in the short run. Sometimes the truth hurts.

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