Sex and the Single Issue Movement

The lesbian, gay, and transgender (LGBT) movement has been fighting for
50-plus years to challenge the oppression of queer people and make the
world a better, less hostile, and safer place for everyone. Fifty years
is not a particularly long time and given the entrenched cultural homophobia
in the United States, the LGBT movement has done a pretty good job so far—except
when it comes to dealing with sexuality. Sure, consensual sodomy performed
in private is no longer a crime, lesbians no longer face the threat of
having their children taken away from them because they pose a sexual danger
to them, and gay men are not automatically presumed to be sexually interested
in boys anymore (except by the Boy Scouts of America, which categorically
forbids them to be scout leaders). But when it comes to thinking sensibly
and politically about sex, most of the major LGBT rights groups would rather
avoid the issue. Even worse, when they do address it, they invariably get
it wrong. 

Case in point: the recent scandal over conservative, anti-gay, Idaho Senator
Larry Craig. On June 11, 2007, Craig was detained by the police and then
arrested on suspicion of lewd conduct at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International
Airport. The plainclothes police who apprehended him claimed that Craig,
while in a men’s room stall, used various signals like tapping his foot
and placing his foot close to the other stall to interest the guy in the
adjoining booth to engage in sex with him. Craig did not call a lawyer,
pled guilty, was fined $575, and was placed on a year’s unsupervised probation.
Amazingly, in this age of information technology and high profile celebrity
and political gossip, no one seemed to notice this until Roll Call, the
“official” paper of Capitol Hill, broke the story on August 27, after Craig
claimed that he was not guilty, that his actions were misinterpreted, that
he pled guilty because he “wanted to make the problem go away,” and that
he is not gay. 

The fallout was immediate. Congressional Republicans turned on Craig, he
was forced to resign his post on the Mitt Romney campaign, he was stripped
of his chair on several committees, and even John McCain called for his
resignation— all after 27 years as a Congressperson and a Senator. Finally,
on September 1, Craig announced his intention to resign. 

This, of course, was a nightmare for Republicans gearing up for a presidential
election, and McCain’s contempt for the entire situation was obvious: “My
opinion is that when you plead guilty to a crime, then you shouldn’t serve.
That’s not a moral stand. That’s not holier-than-thou. It’s just a factual
situation. I think he should resign. I don’t try to judge people. But in
this case it is clear that it was disgraceful.” 

What is clear is that Craig’s arrest and guilty plea were not going to
be forgiven by his compassionate conservative compatriots. But make no
mistake, Craig is a bit player who can easily be tossed to the political
and media wolves. What is surprising—and distressing—is the response of
the national LGBT political and advocacy groups as well as prominent gay
male bloggers. 

Larry Craig posed a particular problem for the current thinking in gay
politics. It’s not just that he consistently voted against progressive
gay and feminist issues—so do a lot of people, some Democrats as well as
many Republicans. But rumors about Craig’s sexuality have been in the wind
for decades. Although he has been married for 25 years and is the (adoptive)
father of his wife’s three children, rumors of Craig’s sexual contacts
with men have flourished. There have been sightings of Craig cruising men
since 1992. Recently, a fellow student of Craig’s at the University of
Idaho claims the future Senator made a pass at him in 1967. The gay blogosphere
has been buzzing with so many rumors that Craig has had to deny them several
times. None of this new scandal should have been news to the LGBT community.

But when the Roll Call story broke, almost every national and many local
gay groups—including the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and
the Log Cabin Republicans (LCR)—rejoiced that Craig had been “caught” and
denounced him as a hypocrite. Matt Foreman, the executive director of the
NGLTF, issued this statement: “What’s up with elected officials like Senator
Craig? They stand for so-called ‘family values’ and fight basic protections
for gay people while furtively seeking other men for sex. Infuriating pathetic
hypocrites. What more can you say?” The LCR posted on their website: “Senator
Larry Craig’s ability to continue serving the people of Idaho is in serious
doubt. He has violated the public trust, not just with his inappropriate
and illegal behavior, but in the subsequent explanation of his actions.
Innocent people don’t plead guilty. The time to contest these allegations
would’ve been before his guilty plea.” While the lure of schadenfreude
is great, in this instance it is short-sighted and, if not overtly homophobic,
certainly prone to incite homophobia. 

So what is wrong with these responses? To start with they ignore a basic
truth that the gay community (especially the gay male community) has always
understood: the police lie. The police have a long, sordid, deeply destructive
history of targeting gay men, entrapping them, and blatantly lying about
their own behaviors. From the earliest years of gay activism, continuing
until now, enormous legal battles have been fought to protect gay men from
police entrapment. For LGBT groups to take the Minneapolis police at their
word is outrageous. The LCR even went so far as to defend the police: “[Craig]
violated the trust of the people and now he’s questioning the honesty of
law enforcement officers.” There is something radically wrong when a LGBT
group—even a conservative one—takes the side of the police in an entrapment

These police entrapment and sting operations—usually presented as campaigns
to make public space safer and increase quality of life—have always been
integral to larger political agendas, often tied to the election of specific
politicians or parties. By their very nature, these campaigns target disenfranchised
cultural groups—most frequently prostitutes, gay men, teenagers of color,
poor people of any color—and portray them as dangerous threats to “regular
people.” It’s an easy way for police and politicians to score points. 

The fallout from these actions can be tremendous. In 2002 a police sting
of men who were meeting in the back room of an adult bookstore in Johnson,
Rhode Island, resulted in 13 arrests. The names of the men, along with
their addresses and places of work, were printed in the Providence Journal.
Stuart Denton, one of the men and a politician in Plainfield, Connecticut,
committed suicide. 

As homosexuality’s stigma has decreased over the years so have the suicides
of men caught in these stings, but they still occur. More common are men
being fired from their jobs, losing their position in the community, and
having their relationships and families destroyed. It is important to realize
that these results are not the incidental, collateral damage of entrapment,
they are the intended results of campaigns meant to intimidate and harm
specific groups of people. As such they are intrinsically homophobic. 

Richard Kim on his blog at the Nation website points out that the Minneapolis
police have “since May of this year…made 41 arrests like Craig’s in an
elaborate sting operation. Not to be outdone, the head of the Atlanta International
Airport police boasted that they’ve arrested 45 men…including ‘a couple
college professors’ and ‘the CEO of a bank’ in a similar sweep.” Doug Ireland,
in New York’s Gay City News, notes that Michigan’s Triangle Foundation
reported that police there had a “caseload of 770 arrests in four months.”

For national gay and lesbian groups to fail to address the Craig arrest
in the context of these shameful ongoing entrapment campaigns is political

The LGBT response presumes that Larry Craig is in the closet, that he is
“really” gay. NGLTF’s Foreman stated “[Craig] may very well not think of
himself as being gay, and these are just urges that he has. It’s the tragedy
of homophobia. People create these walls that separate themselves from
who they really are.” Richard Rosendall, a conservative gay columnist echoes
this: “A classic consequence of self-repression is that one’s underlying
nature, being unchanged, inevitably bursts out in inappropriate ways. It
is no surprise that Craig would resort to sleazy restroom sex, since he
is unwilling to see homosexuality in a more favorable light.” 

Both Foreman and Rosendall are engaging in psychobabble and dubious politics
(and linguistics). First of all, Craig is certainly not “gay”—if we understand
“gay” to be not just a marker of sexual behavior, but also a form of political
speech that unequivocally characterizes homosexual desire and acts as good.
“Gay” is also, to a very large degree, a term of self-description. “I am
a gay American” stated Jim McGreevy, former governor of New Jersey, when
he came out. Craig has made it very clear that he is not a gay American.
Craig is—to use a term that has proved invaluable for understanding human
male sexual behavior—a “man who has sex with men (or MSM in AIDS educator
parlance). Why is this concept so difficult to understand? Surely Foreman
and all the other LGBT spokespeople have heard of it. 

But rather then grapple with more complicated political and identity issues,
Foreman et al. quickly, and self-servingly, label Craig a hypocrite because
it suits their political needs. This may be understandable in the Beltway
thinking of sewer politics, but the reality is that it comes at enormous,
unacceptable costs. The bottom line is that by focusing on Craig’s “hypocrisy,”
the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Log Cabin Republicans, and numerous
LGBT and mainstream pundits end up demonizing him primarily for his alleged
sexual behavior—not for his real crime, which is fighting against laws
that will benefit LGBT people. This occurs, in large part, because the
national groups and more respectability-pandering commentators understand
that public discussions about queer sexuality are difficult to have in
our current political climate. 

Usually these groups avoid discussion of sexual behavior or desire, but
in this case, because public sex between men is generally found distasteful
by mainstream culture, they actively come out condemning it. Richard Rosendall,
in a disdainful and patronizing tone, describes Craig’s alleged bathroom
cruising as “sleazy restroom sex” and “squalid.” Foreman simply consigns
Craig, because of his alleged cruising methods, to the category of a pathetic
closet case—not a real gay person. “My sense is that most of the people
who engage in bathroom sex are living closeted lives. If you’re open, you
can hook up on line, in a bar or even through your church” claims Foreman.
But this is nonsense. Many open and politically active gay men engage in
bathroom cruising—a fact Foreman, who has lived most of his adult life
in gay male urban communities, must know. But also many closeted men hook
up online, in bars, and in churches. Hell, I’d bet there are as many closeted
hook ups in church congregations as in men’s rooms. 

Why does this happen? Because centrist and conservative LGBT groups have
no desire to discuss the complexities of personal or community sexual behavior,
they would rather distance themselves from anyone who does not fit a wholesome,
coupled, and marriageable profile. Since the fight for marriage equality
has become, for many, the single defining issue of the LGBT movement, all
other less respectable forms of sexual behavior become tainted and unacceptable.

The homophobic response in the mainstream press to the Craig story has
been enormous. LGBT rights groups could not have stopped that, but they
didn’t need to make it worse. A far more constructive approach would have
been to say: “We don’t know what Larry Craig was doing in the Minneapolis
bathroom, but based on decades of experience and legal battles, we don’t
immediately believe the police. We do know that Larry Craig has a terrible
voting record on gay rights and we condemn that.” The issue should be Larry
Craig’s voting record, nothing else. Condemnations of Larry Craig’s alleged
sexual behavior, even if he pleaded guilty, only increase the mainstream
public perception that gay sex is squalid, sleazy, and bad and adds to
the homophobia in our culture. 

When empathy and sympathy are so easily contorted by political agendas—left
or right—it’s difficult not to engage in hypocrisy. And in the case of
Larry Craig, there seems to be enough hypocrisy to go around for everyone.


Michael Bronski is an activist, teacher, and author. His most recent book
Pulp Friction  (St. Martin’s Press).