Soon-to-be ex-Congressman Aaron Schock has much to dread about a potential criminal probe into his lavish spending. But for now he’s having to deal with an equally, if not more fearsome foe: the bitchy gay community.
Ever since he stepped onto the national scene as a 27-year-old congressman from Peoria, Illinois, Schock has been trailed by rumors that he is gay. He seemed to check all the boxes: snappy dresser, obsessive concern for his physique, the lack of a female love interest. The rumors have never been confirmed, but Schock didn’t do himself any favors.
Spending $40,000 to redecorate your congressional office with bright red walls in the style of an English country home ripped from the set of Downton Abbey is not the best way to scuttle speculation about one’s sexuality. Nor is throwing a 30th birthday party for yourself along an 1980s theme and handing out single, bedazzled white gloves a la Michael Jackson as party favors (thanks for the gift, Congressman).
Asked the question up front, Schock has denied that he’s gay, but gays have treated his protestations with the same seriousness as people in Northern Ireland respond to Gerry Adams’s denials that he was ever a member of the IRA.
The explanation for Schock’s presumed closetedness isn’t that hard to understand: His party remains largely unwelcome to openly gay officials (only two Republican congressmen, Steve Gunderson and Jim Kolbe, have been elected while being openly gay), and it’s doubtful that Schock’s coming out would (literally) play well in Peoria.
Nearly every gay man I know in Washington, D.C., knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who had sex with Schock. The height of this innuendo was reached last year when Itay Hod, a freelance journalist, posted a note on his Facebook page relating a story from an anonymous friend who claimed that he’d witnessed his roommate exiting the shower with an unnamed Republican congressman. Hod didn’t name Schock in his post, but he didn’t have to. “Even though news organizations know this guy is gay, they can’t report it because he hasn’t said so on Twitter,” Hod complained. This hearsay account then became the subject of an entire story in The New York Times.
According to his gay antagonists, Schock deserves to be outed because of his anti-gay voting record. That consists of opposition to gay marriage, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the institution of harsher criminal penalties for hate crimes. Disagreement with the latter proposal should hardly be considered a requirement by the gay community for qualification as an ally, considering that many gay intellectuals, policymakers, and writers (this one included) oppose hate-crimes legislation on freedom of conscience grounds. There’s no evidence that Schock personally discriminated against gay people, nor did he ever crusade against homosexuality, like Ted Haggard, the former leader of the National Association of Evangelicals who railed against gays and was later exposed by a male escort as a client.
The grounds for outing Schock, then, are not as clear as they are for some of the other, high-profile outings of professional homophobes who make it their job to keep gays down. And yet, there has been an ugly undercurrent in the deportment of much of the gay male community, which is taking a perverse delight in Schock’s downfall. The unseemly giddiness with which so many gay men are reveling in the news of his resignation brings to mind the saga of Mark Foley, the former Florida Republican congressman who resigned after it was revealed that he had sexually harassed male congressional pages. Unlike Schock, however, Foley had a largely pro-gay voting record, something that the gay liberals who tore him apart conveniently ignored while whipping up hysteria about a predatory homosexual, a stereotype that has done so much harm to gay men. One Democratic congresswoman aired an ad accusing Republicans of “covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest children,” a blatant lie. The inquisitorial demeanor that so many gay men have assumed in discussion of Schock—demanding that he out himself immediately or face the consequences—hardly differs from the religious right-wing scolds they claim to despise.
Per usual, the Torquemada of this campaign is gay journalist Michaelangelo Signorile, who pioneered the tactic of outing in the 1990s. “It’s odd that [Schock’s being gay] is missing now in virtually all the current coverage, because it’s a part of Schock’s media history that also points to deception,” Signorile wrote last month, providing no evidence whatsoever as to Schock’s sexuality, other than his penchant for “flamboyant” clothes.
Former Congressman Barney Frank, now hawking a memoir, got in on the act, telling Business Insider, “I have to say, if [the rumors are] not true, he spent entirely too much time in the gym for a straight man.” Given Frank’s own acknowledged schlubbiness and history of being reprimanded by his House colleagues for fixing a hustler’s parking tickets, this was an odd remark for the Democrat from Massachusetts to make.
As to whether or not Schock is actually gay, pardon me for speculating that the assertions affirming that he is are largely aspirational. Gay men want Schock to be gay because, well, they want him. More importantly, they also want him to be gay because it would fit into a convenient narrative about gay conservatives: that they are all morally compromised, self-hating, untrustworthy sellouts. What really angers the gay mob is that Schock is conservative. By trivializing a serious story of corruption with unfounded allegations of homosexuality, they demonstrate their inability to judge the real issues because they’re transfixed on minor ones.
While Schock’s gay inquisitors have a theory that his downfall is a direct result of his being gay, the actual reason is likely much simpler: Like many politicians, Schock soon started to believe that he was above the people who elected him, and that the rules didn’t apply.
And just as likely an explanation for Schock’s seemingly gay appearance is that the Illinois Republican is like many straight, metrosexual, socially unaware young men from the Midwest who don’t always understand the social signals they’re broadcasting with their fashionable clothes and finicky grooming habits. That might account for the $40,000 office redecoration and the Michael Jackson gloves. It’s more responsible, journalistically, then simply asserting that someone is gay.
What if Schock is gay? Maybe I’ll have to turn in my gay card, but I would have some sympathy for him on that score. Schock grew up in the extremely conservative Apostolic Christian Church, a Baptist sect. The rambling comments that his father recently delivered to a press scrum offer a clue as to how his family might deal with the revelation of his homosexuality. Casually waving off very serious accusations of corruption as bunk, Richard Schock was clear to point out that just because his son wears “stylish clothing” and isn’t “running around with women” does not mean that he’s gay. Heaven forfend if he were.
Not every gay public figure needs to be a hero or trailblazer. Not every gay person’s life is characterized by parents who don’t look askance at their son’s listening to Judy Garland records at a young age. If Schock is gay and lying about it, with a moderately anti-gay public record to boot, then that makes him a coward, and nothing more. Schock hails from a solidly conservative Republican district and voting against repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is presumably what his constituents wanted. He would hardly be the first dishonest politician who covered up some aspect of his life to further his career.
But this taunting of Schock, this using homosexuality as a weapon, can only backfire. That’s what the religious right does. Count me out.