Sexual McCarthyism

Article excerpt

Will the new scrutiny in Washington on private behavior mean more bad news for gay and lesbian politicians?

In the past year Americans have learned more about the sex lives of their political leaders than most would probably care to know. Besides the president, those exposed for past indiscretions, youthful or otherwise, included four conservative Republican representatives: Dan Burton of Indiana, Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois, and, in a bombshell delivered by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt (with promises of more to come), House speaker-elect Robert Livingston of Louisiana, who stunned his colleagues by revealing past affairs and then announcing his departure from Congress.

The overheated--some would say poisoned--atmosphere in Washington has been dubbed sexual McCarthyism, after the late Wisconsin senator, Joe McCarthy, who made his career by recklessly labeling his enemies as Communists. Under the new McCarthyism every nuance of private sexual behavior becomes fair game for public scrutiny. It may just be a matter of time before a same-sex extramarital affair is dredged up. Does this mean a permanent scrutiny of the sex life of everyone in public view? Or will the public become so repulsed, or even bored with it all, that sexuality (including gay sexuality) is no longer an issue?

"It could go either way," says Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard University and author of the presciently titled Sexual McCarthyism, published just as the latest revelations hit the headlines. "We live by the swing of the pendulum, and I think all politicians are very worried about sexual McCarthyism. But the silver lining, that your sex life is nobody's business, may be close at hand. And once that occurs for heterosexual politicians, it must be applied equally to those who are gay or lesbian."

Still, Dershowitz cautions that the new atmosphere could only serve to underscore the second-class status of gay and lesbian relationships. If gay politicians escape the brunt of the scrutiny, it may be because heterosexuals deem gays' affairs less important. "I suspect the straight community in general will apply a double standard to gays," worries Dershowitz, "in a sense, expecting less of them, which I think is wrong."

Not everyone is convinced that the country has entered a brave new world of sexual politics, in the meanest sense of the tenn. "I don't think it's as bad as people think," says openly gay Democratic representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who has witnessed the tumult as a member of Hyde's judiciary committee. "Livingston was in a particularly vulnerable position, running for speaker in the midst of impeachment, but the other three Republican members suffered no consequences at all."

Dershowitz, a friend of Frank's since high school, disagrees. "Sexual McCarthyism is very real, and I don't like it," he says. "I don't like the fact that people can use other people's sexual secrets as a way of influencing their polices."

With events in Washington moving at a dizzying pace, it is almost impossible to predict just what long-term effect the new sexual atmosphere will have on gay politicians. Some people may draw the line when talking about the sex lives of gay officials out of sheer squeamishness.

"I think it's too early to say," says Brian Bond, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a group that funds gay candidates. "But recent polling tells us that that 87% of the people say we should have equal rights, but when asked about legalizing same-sex acts, the number drops to 55%. They don't want to think about us having sex. They're not ready."

Indeed, for once, heterosexuals may have a harder time going public with their sexual behavior than gays and lesbians. …