A history of political gay-baiting.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 16 2010 10:02 AM

Fussy, Hysterical, Wine-Sipping Pols

A history of political gay-baiting.

(Continued from Page 1)

Weak and Whiny
One way to suggest a man is gay is to play to the notion that a man with a soft voice, touch, or walk is weak, and that weak men are gay. South Carolina Democratic party chairman Dick Harpootlian famously commented in 2001 that Republican Lindsey Graham, then a candidate for Strom Thurmond's U.S. Senate seat, was "a little too light in the loafers" to fill the shoes of his predecessor. Though "light in the loafers" is one of the most tired gay euphemisms there is, Harpootlian claimed he was unaware that his remark about Graham's loafers had gay connotations, to which journalist Greg Hambrick responded in the Charleston City Paper, "Apparently he didn't know what too thick in the head meant either."

During the  2005 Virginia governor's race, a local paper described Republican Jerry Kilgore's voice as a "Ned Flanders meets Mr. Rogers' whine." In other words, the guy's voice sounds gay. Then an ad for then-candidate and ultimately Governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, called Kilgore "too weak to lead Virginia" and included the line, "Jerry Kilgore is not being straight."

In the 2010 midterm elections, the Mama Grizzlies have deployed the weak bait with gusto. Karen Handel, a candidate in the Georgia GOP's gubernatorial primary, informed her opponent that it was "time to put the big boy pants on." This year, gearing up for midterm elections, Sarah Palin used this bait on Obama, stating on Fox News Sunday that, unlike Arizona governor Jan Brewer, a woman has bigger cojones than the president when it comes to dealing with illegal immigration.

Like a Woman
Another way to suggest that a male politician is sexually attracted to other men is to liken him to a woman. Massachusetts Bay colonists mocked British customs officials by questioning their masculinity. John McCain's 2008 campaign once called Obama "fussy" and "hysterical," and in an ad compared him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Maureen Dowd, who trots out this bait all too often, referred to then-candidate Obama as "a diffident debutante," and an obsessive "starlet" with a "feminine management style." She had competition from Tucker Carlson, who once suggested Obama's effeminacy was obvious in the then-candidate's  book-club attendance—anti-intellectualism is implicit in the Effete Elite bait. Blogger John Aravosis summed-up the Like a Woman bait when he wrote of the Obama smears, he "is prone to hysteria, and reminds you of ditzy blonde chicks. Sorry, but that's a stereotypical gay guy."

Advertisement

French
Among the sillier cases of baiting in recent history is the attention journalists and right-wing pundits paid in 2004 to John Kerry's Francophilia. Men's rights site mensnewsdaily.com titled an article, "Men Are From Mars, John Kerry Is From Paris." Rush Limbaugh repeatedly referred to Kerry as "Monsieur Kerry" and "Jean Cheri," writing Kerry off both figuratively (calling up some Americans' notion that French men have innate homosexual leanings) and literally (Jean Cheri translates to "Dear John").

The New York Times may have helped spread the smear by quoting an unnamed GOP source saying that Kerry "looked French," a play on Kerry's French relatives and Swiss boarding-school education. The conceit worked well with the GOP's 2004 strategy to distinguish itself, the party of manly men, from the party of liberal flip-floppers. When the New York Times covered it yet again, Roger Cohen further added to the image of Kerry's effeminacy by quoting a Republican National Committee spokeswoman noting Kerry's "fondness for brie and Evian."

The Democratic Version
The right is not always the source of homophobic messaging. Gay-baiting has a long bipartisan history. Despite the fact that most LGBT votes and campaign contributions—fondly known as the GayTM—go to Democrats, Democratic pols engage in gay-baiting almost as often as their Republican counterparts, and their baits can be far more diabolical. Take, for instance, the 2002 U.S. Senate race in Montana between Democrat incumbent Max Baucus and Republican challenger Mike Taylor. The Montana Democratic Party sponsored an ad showing Taylor, who owned a hair salon in the 1980s, applying lather to a man's face as part of a shaving demonstration. The ad concludes, "That's not how we do business here in Montana."

In the face of this betrayal by their supposed representatives, LGBT advocates often are reluctant to protest, not wanting to hurt the Democratic candidate's chances. If the Republican victim protests—Taylor called the implications "loathsome"—critics turn his objections back on him. Why is looking gay "despicable"? Taylor was asked. He quickly withdrew from the race, after rephrasing his objection to completely sidestep the true meaning of the ad. "Are they saying someone from my field in not qualified to be senator?" he asked.

Lifestyle
At least since the 19th century, opponents, journalists, and others have called attention to certain male political figures' aristocratic upbringing and manners, their Ivy League or equivalent educations, and their epicurean tastes—also associated with gay men. The goal of this bait isn't necessarily to make voters believe the target is gay, only to make them think he possesses negative, stereotypically gay male qualities.

In the 1840s, supporters of Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison described incumbent Democratic president Martin Van Buren as "luxury-loving." Boston's pro-Whig Atlas described Van Buren as a "dandy" in "nicely plaited ruffles," who was "leading off a minuet" while Harrison fought the War of 1812. The Harrison slogan "Van Van, you're a used-up man," suggested squandered masculinity—whether on frivolous pursuits or fellow men was left to the imagination.

All of which bears a striking similarity to the ad all but one of Texas' major newspapers ran three weeks ago calling incumbent Republican governor Rick Perry a coward. Funded by Back to Basics, a political action committee formed by Texas Democrats this year, the ad describes the governor, "When he's not in San Francisco … Perry's … flipping through the pages of his Food and Wine magazine … in his fancy … rental mansion." This bait sticks not just because it is blatantly coded—"San Francisco," "Food and Wine," "fancy,"—or because it could also be cross-listed under "weak" and "effeminate" (the ad concludes, "Tell Rick Perry to stop cowering and face Texans like a man")—but because it refreshes public memory of the already existing, unsubstantiated rumors that Perry is gay. In 2004 the Austin Chronicle's Michael King reported the rumors in a way that both did and didn't discredit them, describing them as based on "no evidence … whatsoever" but "extraordinary in their baroque detail and remarkable persistence." LGBT rights organizations didn't object, probably because they are so eager to see a Democrat in office, especially given the Texas Democratic Party's recent revision of its platform to explicitly support "repeal of discriminatory laws and policies against members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community."

All the Single Ladies
Also known as the sporty/brainy-ladies-with-short-haircuts-and-no-kiddos bait. If a single woman rises to power in politics, her sexual orientation is assumed to be fodder for the rumor mill. Discussing Janet Napolitano on her nighttime talk show, Joy Behar of TheView asked two gay male guests, "Isn't she gay?" In 2009, the New York Times Magazine came as close as it ever has to asking a politician directly whether she's gay when Deborah Solomon put to Napolitano this nonquestion: "Men don't know what to make of women who choose to be single. Rumors of lesbianism have dogged women in politics like you, Condoleezza Rice and Ann Richards," thereby re-baiting both Rice and the late Texas governor. Napolitano in return gave a nonanswer: "I think the more people get to know a person, the less that becomes an issue."

Certain tropes—athletics, pant-suits, glasses, for instance—really help get a single-lady bait off the ground, and even the most dignified news organizations often can't resist playing along. The Wall Street Journal decided to announce Elena Kagan's Supreme Court confirmation proceedings alongside a photo of Kagan in her softball-playing days on its front page, and throughout the 1990s, Janet Reno's size and outdoorsiness were fodder for jokes around Washington and, of course, on Saturday Night Live. Journalist Michael Lacey once led a piece with the statement, "If Janet Napolitano isn't a lesbian, I'll eat your hat. She is a walking, one-woman LPGA tour." Media outlets ran articles on Rice's hardcore workout regimen. (The Rice rumor was also a spectacular example of the media re-laying the bait. The Times of London concluded its piece on the rumor with this bit of gossip from a washingtonpost.com commenter, "It is widely believed in gay circles that Condi is a lesbian.")

  Slate Plus
Working
Dec. 18 2014 4:49 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 17 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a middle school principal about his workday.