Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Closeted in the Capital: They're Powerful, Republican, and Gay. Will the Marriage Battle Finally Get Them to Come out to Their Bosses?

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Closeted in the Capital: They're Powerful, Republican, and Gay. Will the Marriage Battle Finally Get Them to Come out to Their Bosses?

Article excerpt

David Catania, the first openly gay man to serve on the Washington, D.C., city council, remembers one of his first jobs in town about 16 years ago. He was staffer for a conservative Republican senator, who has since retired. His boyfriend worked for another Republican lawmaker, who is still a player in national politics. Needless to say, neither Catania nor his boyfriend could be out on Capitol Hill. Over the years, Catania, a Republican, has known numerous gay men in somewhat similar situations--those who work in Congress, federal agencies, or lobbying groups and hide their sexual orientation, petrified that it will damage their careers.

"This is nothing new. This city has historically been somewhat conservative in terms of interconnecting personal and professional lives," Catania says, adding that he believes most gay men and lesbians in such situations eventually the of living in the closet and find another job.

That breaking point may arrive soon for some as Washington becomes the center of the storm in the debate over gay marriage. The Senate and the House trove already held several hearings on the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would change the U.S. Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage and could prevent states from passing their own laws to establish domestic partnerships, civil unions, or marriage-like rights for gay couples.

Discussion of the amendment has exposed a painful personal and professional catch-22 for the closeted gay men and lesbians who live and work in and around D.C.--especially those in powerful positions as chiefs of staff for conservative lawmakers or as rising stars in think tanks with conservative cultures. Their bosses may not harass them and may welcome their same-sex "special friends" in private but oppose gay rights in public. And yet these gay or lesbian staffers cannot work to convince their bosses to change their opinions--unless they come out first.

It is a peculiar spot to be in. But Washington is a peculiar town for its gay and lesbian residents. It has a sizable number of households occupied by same-sex couples, a diverse nightlife, and some of the most comprehensive local civil rights laws anywhere. Yet it remains entrenched in power, strategy, rules, and tradition. Cultural shifts in D.C. don't happen quickly. In the 1950s bureaucrats prided themselves on purging government agencies of gay and lesbian employees. As recently as March, a Bush administration appointee removed references to sexual orientation discrimination from the Office of Special Counsel's Web site. The move angered many gay rights groups. Washington continues to be a place where closeted gay men may prepare antigay briefings for their bosses in the House or Senate during the day but hit Dupont Circle's gay bars at night--never mixing the political and personal.

Getting a firsthand look at closeted gay men and lesbians is a daunting task. Their doors aren't just closed; they are bolted shut and double-locked, with tiny cracks allowing only for notes to be slipped through. Those who were contacted for this article had plenty to say about leading a double life, but they talked only on the condition that their names or positions not be published. Some even required that their e-mail interviews be first cut and pasted to a new message and then forwarded by colleagues to The Advocate.

"Most people can leave their work at the office," says "John." "Mine follows me home. How would you like to turn on your television and see your boss, or your boss's cohorts, telling you what a horrible person you are every other day? Happens to me all the time ... and there's not a damn thing I can do about it." Adds another communicant, "Matt," who works for a major right-wing lobbying group: "I think it'd be valuable for people to know that there are gay conservatives working for change from the inside. But if the people I work for knew I was gay, I'd be on the other side of that door--and double-quick. …

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