As the July 12 date nears for a vote on the federal marriage amendment, an outing panic has gripped Washington's political and media circles. Some gay activists have vowed to expose those closeted members of Congress who are supporting the amendment, as well as the closeted gay staffers of any member backing it. And it's not only right-wing Republicans who should be on notice. After initially indicating that she would vote against the constitutional amendment that would make gays and lesbians into second-class citizens, Sen. Barbara Mikulski's opposition to the amendment appears to have gone into the closet: Now that a vote is near, the Maryland Democratwho is up for reelection in Novemberis suddenly not returning reporters' phone calls seeking her intentions on the vote, nor is she issuing any statements on the matter.
Mikulski's position on same-sex marriage isn't the only thing in her closet: The sexual orientation of the forever-unmarried 67-year-old has been an open secret for many years. But Mikulski has apparently always worried about what her working-class Democratic base in Maryland might think of her sexual orientation, making her irrationally petrified of ever discussing it (except to make heterosexual allusions).
These fears have made Mikulski less than a champion of gay rights, perhaps lest anyone think she might be gay herself. Back in the 80s, when Mikulski was first running for the Senate, the Republicans brought in as her opponent none other than the nasty anti-feminist Linda Chavezthe columnist and pundit who years later would drop out as George W. Bush's Labor Secretary nominee amid a scandal over her having paid her housekeeper off the books. During the Senate campaign, Chavez engaged in her own bit of gay-baiting, accusing Mikulski of being a "San Francisco-style Democrat" who should come "out of the closet." She also attacked Mikulski for hiring an Australian feminist academic, Teresa Mary Brennan, as a congressional aide in 1981, and went after Mikulski for supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, charging that the ERA would "open up the whole question of homosexual marriage."
It had been widely reported that Brennan, at the time of her employment, was living with Mikulski at her Fells Point home for two months. Chavez's campaign manager told reporters that in the final two weeks of the campaign, tv commercials would focus on Mikulski's relationship with Brennan. Mikulski's response was to go gaga over a hunky guy at a campaign event.
"Are you single?" the short, squat Mikulski asked a body shop owner in the crowd. "Give me a call after the election. I won't be so busy then."
(As far as I'm concerned, Mikulski opened up her private life that day, implying that she certainly had a sexual orientation, though trying to make us believe it was of the heterosexual variety.)
Mikulski won the election by a wide margin, but she learned that she'd always be gay-baited, so it was perhaps best to vote against gays. This strategy seemed to culminate in 1996 when Mikulski voted in favor of the wretched Defense of Marriage Act, incurring the wrath of gay activists. At a Barnes & Noble in Chelsea that yearpromoting a mystery novel she'd co-written, called Capitol OffenseMikulski was confronted by several gay activists and journalists, including me.
"How could you, as a lesbian, support the Defense of Marriage Act?" I asked her. Mikulski was shocked and just skulked around the book shelves, mouth wide open, but never offering any confirmation or denial. Her co-author, Mary Louise Oateswife of Democratic political strategist Bob Shrumstood at the podium, angrily defending Mikulski, declaring this to be a terrible invasion of the senator's privacy; it was pathetic that Mikulski wouldn't answer for herself. And such gallshe'd come to a bookstore in one of America's largest gay ghettos just after voting for the Defense of Marriage Act and thought she wouldn't be confronted. But actually, that underscores the massive denial with which many of these people live.
The exchange got some media coverage, and it likely traumatized Mikulski in a similar but opposite way that Linda Chavez had traumatized her: Her voting record on gay rights miraculously improved. (It's sad that it takes such actions and inducement of fear to motivate such individuals, but again, that's how denial works.)
But now Mikulski is once again flirting with an antigay vote as she is up for reelection. Perhaps she's being pressured by the homophobes as well, who might be threatening to out her if she says she'll vote against the amendment, while gay-rights activists will certainly focus attention on her sexual orientation again if she even hints at voting for it.
"The FMA is the legislative equivalent of a nuclear bomb," wrote DC activist John Aravosis in the Washington Blade last week, defending outing members of Congress and their staffers. "Facing such an unprecedented threat, it is time we considered an unprecedented response."
Of course, Mikulski and any other closeted member of Congress could disempower everyone on either side by simply living openly. All of Capitol Hill, reports the Blade, is in a "panic" over activists' efforts to out politicians supporting the FMA and, perhaps more controversially, threatening to out staffers who might be gay. The argument for outing the staffers is that many of them have a lot of influence in their offices and are public figures in their own right, quoted often in the beltway press, representing their bosses. Activist Mike Rogers has been calling the offices of at least 13 members of Congress urging the closeted gay staffers to confront their bosses on the issue, and outing them to the chiefs of staff if they refuse to discuss the issue with him.
Rumors have circulated in Washington that the Blade had planned to publish a list of names of closeted staffers and members, something the paper denies even as it defends reporting on those who might be closeted gays who might be voting for the amendment. As of last week, reporters at Newsweek and other major news organizations were making phone calls and readying stories even as they've yet to print anything about the outings. Perhaps they're coming to the conclusion that the internet makes their attempts at censorship increasingly futile.
The corporate media report on every last detail about the marriages and divorces of heterosexual public figures, often when it's not relevant to a larger story and often when the information is even wrong (as in the case of John Kerry's non-affair with an intern). In this case, the votes of Barbara Mikulski and every member of Congress make their sexual orientationand the status of their marriages and divorcesopen to discussion, no matter if they're gay, straight, bi or whatever. Will the Washington press corps realize this time around that protecting the closet means siding hands-down with the gay rights opponents? o