It started off as predictable gay-baiting from right-wing talk show hosts, but now the press is picking up the scent: Did a tight-knit crew of gay Republicans on Capitol Hill keep a lid on Mark Foley's predatory pursuit of male congressional pages?
The earliest press reports on the Foley scandal indicated that Jeff Trandahl—then the chief clerk of the U.S. House—met with Foley, not long before Trandahl quietly resigned his post in September 2005, to talk with the Florida Republican about an e-mail he sent to a 16 year-old who had returned to Louisiana after graduating from the page program. Those stories didn't report what gay Washington insiders knew: Trandahl is gay and even sits on the Human Rights Campaign board of directors.
Then came the resignation of Kirk Fordham, who had been Foley's chief of staff and aide for a decade. Fordham had left Foley's office in 2004, but nonetheless quit his new position as staff chief for Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-N.Y., after the media reported how Fordham tried to convince ABC News not to go public with the now-infamous Foley online chats about masturbation and penis shape.
Fordham has been running damage control for Foley for years, pleading with the gay press during Foley's aborted 2003 run for U.S. Senate not to ask his closeted boss 'the question.' Fordham is also gay, and over the years has described himself as 'out in the gay community but not in the press.'
At first Fordham blamed his resignation on Democrats who he said were using the Foley scandal to hurt Fordham's new boss, who is in a tight re-election battle and is supposed to be overseeing the entire GOP effort to stay in control of the U.S. House. But within hours, Fordham could see that embattled House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., was looking for a scapegoat, and Fordham was determined that it wouldn't be him.
So Fordham let fly with the bombshell that he had told Hastert aide Scott Palmer about Foley's inappropriate contacts with pages as far back as 2003—two years earlier than the speaker's office claimed it was aware of the problem. According to Fordham, Palmer had confronted Foley back then, but Palmer immediately denied Fordham's story.
Palmer, it turns out, is a bachelor and shares a D.C. townhouse with Speaker Hastert.
Then this week, the Washington Post reported that as far back as 2000, another gay Republican—Congressman Jim Kolbe of Arizona—knew about sexually graphic e-mails from Foley to yet another former page. Kolbe isn't talking about what he did in response to the report, but his spokesperson insists he took 'corrective action.'
Whatever Kolbe did, he did it in private and it looks very much like, at the very least, this tight-knit group of gay Republicans in Washington decided to treat Foley's 'indiscretions' as an internal matter for them to deal with rather than alert the authorities. Like the 'thin blue line' of cops who value protecting corrupt fellow officers over protecting the public, this 'thin pink line' appears to have been more interested in protecting Foley, one of their own, than the teenage pages he was pursuing.
For those of us who know gay Republican staffers and congressmen on the Hill, the scenario is completely plausible. These men—because there isn't a lesbian among them—are like a fraternity that bonds over what they see as a hostile world all around them. They feel unwelcome among Republicans for being gay, and derided by gays for being Republicans.
Protecting each other's privacy—i.e., closet—is a top priority, especially when disclosure can mean ridicule from liberal activists within the gay community, and can ruin job prospects within conservative GOP ranks.
In that toxic atmosphere, it's hardly surprising that Kolbe, Fordham, Trandahl and, perhaps, Palmer would close ranks and try to deal themselves with Foley and the fallout from his misbehavior. Taking the matter to the House Ethics Committee would have outed Foley and embarrassed gay Republicans with the most reviled of all stereotypes: child predator.
Now, paradoxically, their paranoid fear of disclosing skeletons from gay GOP closets threatens to do far worse damage to the image of gay Republicans, and gays generally, than they probably ever imagined.
The Republicans, whose party chair Ken Mehlman is himself closeted about his sexual orientation, deserve the heat for fomenting a secret world of gay staffers and congressmen who act to protect each other's hide in an anti-gay environment that constantly threatens their careers.
The same can be said for the Velvet Mafia, who not only compartmentalize their lives in the traditional ways demanded by the closet, but somehow rationalize their professional commitment to a party that opposes their own basic civil rights and regularly wedges the electorate with gay-baiting tactics they personally loathe.
As many gay politicos said over the weekend in Washington, it was only a matter of time.
Chris Crain is the former editor of the Washington Blade and Southern Voice. Also, as editorial director of Window Media, he oversaw five other gay publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .