Openness often biggest struggle for gay politicians
Tue., May 10, 2005
When Dean Lynch was serving on the Spokane City Council, he received an invitation to the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast.
“To council member and spouse.”
As an openly gay politician, Lynch had stumbled again into the unique borderland of politics, religion and homosexuality.
“I really had to struggle with, do I take my spouse to that event, or do I go alone?” Lynch said Saturday in a telephone interview from Nicaragua, where he is doing community development work. “I did not want to offend anyone, rub it in their noses, and yet I’m not ashamed of my partner, and this is who I am.”
As it turns out, Lynch’s partner couldn’t attend the breakfast. But the questions illustrate the difficult position of gays and lesbians in elected office, who must make daily choices about the boundaries of their private and public lives.
Last week, the issue exploded in the gay community when allegations surfaced that Mayor Jim West – a longtime conservative opponent of gay rights – had sexually abused boys and had relationships with young men. On chat lines and in conversations, West’s closeted life evoked anger and resentment from many.
“I’m disappointed with somebody who’s really been so negative toward our community and then does this,” said Spokane resident Mark Mustoe, who is gay. “It does take courage to come out, and you may lose some things. But you gain things as well – you gain honesty and self-respect.”
Many said that a public figure’s sexual orientation is less an issue than is honesty about it – or whether there are questions of illegal behavior, which becomes a separate issue.
“If Jim had revealed that he had a partner and they’d been together 15 years, I don’t think there’d be anything close to this outcry,” said Alex Wood, a Democratic state representative and former journalist from Spokane.
But others wonder whether an openly gay man could win election as the mayor of Spokane, and they note that public attitudes about gays and lesbians are anything but simple.
Though tolerance for homosexuality is growing, roughly half of Americans surveyed expressed an “unfavorable” opinion of gay men in a 2003 study by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. More than half said they consider homosexuality a sin and opposed allowing gays and lesbians to marry.
Penny Lancaster, a longtime conservative social activist in Spokane, said she views homosexual living as a poor choice – along with adultery and other behavior “outside the fence of marriage” – and sees the sexual orientation of politicians as a valid character issue for voters.
“I would say that people who embody that lifestyle, for the most part, are not setting a good example,” said Lancaster.
‘Not telling the truth’
Over the last 20 years, debates over homosexuality have crossed into statehouses, Congress, courtrooms and school boards.
Proposals to offer protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation are still introduced – and still stridently debated. Courts and lawmakers have taken on both sides in the gay marriage debate. Companies and cities are beginning to provide benefits for unmarried domestic partners, as the Spokane City Council voted to do recently.
In his position as a Senate leader and now Spokane mayor, West has lined up with social conservatives in opposition to establishing particular rights for gays and allowing gay marriage. He has threatened to veto the domestic-partners proposal.
Those positions, set against the revelations about his personal life, are what anger many in the gay community. In the gay blogosphere, the West story has incited a fevered burst of commentary.
“Just another self-loathing gay man,” reads one typical post.
“Just another hypocritical Republican,” reads another.
Many make it a point to emphasize the difference between the allegations of child sexual abuse and adult sexual orientation. They decry the fact that the West story may reinforce the perception that gay men are sexual predators.
But an equally consistent theme among the reactions to the West story is the destructive nature of living a closeted life – especially for public figures.
Lynch said he empathizes with the difficulties of being publicly gay. It took him years to accept himself, he said, and after that it took a long time to be truly open with people.
“I know the toll that takes, so I understand any person on the political level having to deal with that, and that’s not something that should be taken lightly,” Lynch said.
But he also said that closeted public figures are making choices every day to hide the truth about themselves.
“They could, at any point in time, change that decision,” he said. “So, from that perspective, they are reaping what they sow.”
Mustoe, a Spokane man who was married for eight years before coming out 14 years ago “to try to do it right,” acknowledges that there are social pressures that influence gay people to keep their private lives a secret. But he says that West’s votes against gay rights reflect a hypocrisy that is the real issue.
“He’s been anti-gay in the Legislature and here,” Mustoe said. “And yet he’s been at Gay.com. That’s not telling the truth.”
West has said that he doesn’t believe all gays and lesbians must adhere to the “extreme liberal agenda” for gay rights.
“There are conservative gays in the world that don’t buy into this whole liberal agenda, and they don’t need it,” West said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review last week.
Dave Kaplan, president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Washington, a pro-gay GOP group, said that just because West has different opinions than many in the gay community does not make him anti-gay.
Though Kaplan said he disagrees with many of West’s positions, he said that gays and lesbians shouldn’t have to adhere to a political orthodoxy. Bedrock conservative principles of fiscal conservatism and personal responsibility are not in conflict with homosexuality, he said.
Kaplan said it is just the “theocratic” wing of the Republican Party that opposes homosexuality, and “I don’t think most conservatives care one way or the other.”
“I get more crap from the gay community because I’m a Republican and gay than I get from Republicans because I’m gay,” he said.
The rumors about West’s sexual orientation bubbled up in Olympia again in 2003, when he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“People were saying that he has no support,” said state Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park. “But others were saying ‘you know, if he wasn’t closeted, he’d have a significant other there to care about him. Because of his choice, there was nobody there to care.’ “
‘Going through a change’
One of the questions that entered the public dialogue last week is this: Could an openly gay candidate be elected mayor in Spokane?
Lynch said he thinks so, though he also believes that he was the target of an innuendo campaign in his unsuccessful run for City Council in 2001, and there are some voters who would not vote for a gay candidate.
Wood, the Spokane representative, notes that more and more gay candidates are being elected, and that generally, social tolerance for homosexuality is growing. The Pew report bolsters that view: Across the board, younger respondents had more favorable views of gays and lesbians than older ones.
Wood likens the shift to the civil rights movement and Spokane’s election of a black mayor, Jim Chase, in the 1980s.
“A lot of people said, ‘That will never happen,’ ” he said.
Mustoe and Lynch describe Spokane as a relatively tolerant place, as long as people are quiet about their sexual orientation.
Lancaster agrees that social acceptance of homosexuality is growing, though she doesn’t consider it a positive development. She said that the media, schools and society have adopted a pro-gay point of view, and it’s taking hold most strongly among the young.
She said that her concern extends beyond gays and lesbians to politicians whose private lives are in contrast to their public lives. She mentioned President Clinton’s sex scandal and the assertion by some that his private life didn’t affect his public duties.
But the high-profile, public discussion of oral sex that surrounded that case left many young people with the notion that it was OK – that it was not a real form of sex, she said.
“That has hurt so many young people,” she said. “The character of our leaders will actually affect the character of our communities.”
Kaplan, the Log Cabin Republican, said religious conservatives like Lancaster will always oppose homosexuality, but for most people what matters is a politician’s performance on the issues that affect their lives.
John Deen, the publisher of Stonewall, a Spokane-based newspaper that covers the gay community, agreed. Deen said more and more gay politicians are out of the closet, and acceptance is more common than hostility – in Spokane and across the country.
“I think Spokane is going through a change,” he said. “What do you call it when a caterpillar comes out of a chrysalis?”
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