A history of political gay-baiting.

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Sept. 16 2010 10:02 AM

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A history of political gay-baiting.

Slide Show: A History of Political Gay Baiting

Last month, former Republican National Committee chairman Kenneth Mehlman came out of the closet, saying he'd taken 43 years to get comfortable with this part of himself. "Encouraging adults who love each other and who want to make a lifelong commitment to each other to get married" is consistent with GOP policy, he added. In a better world, conservatives would see the light, beg for forgiveness, and declare that gay-baiting was no longer a legitimate strategy for either party. But the fact is that gay-baiting, whether fine-tuned to the point of near-subliminality or outrageously transparent, continues to fit comfortably into the modern political discourse.

Generally, gay-baiting is the linguistic practice of publicly insinuating, with little or no evidence, that a rival might be gay, without ever using the word "gay" or homosexual." Successful euphemistic smears include "San Francisco," "weak," or even "hairdresser." The practice has been around since before the Revolutionary War, and recycles the same tropes. In 2010, of course, the difference should be that it's no longer a damning insinuation. Out gay politicians are members of congress and mayors of major American cities; Don't Ask, Don't Tell is on the way out, with the approval of 57 percent of the population; gay couples across the country raise adopted and biological children; and legal gay marriage is an imminent possibility.

And yet the bait goes on.

Baiting succeeds because it relies on the kind of bad joke in which many people still take guilty or not-so-guilty pleasure, prompting the defense that critics just need to lighten up. Just last week in Delaware, in the lead-up to Tuesday's GOP primary, consultants employed until recently by Tea Partier and Mama Grizzly Christine O'Donnell ran a television ad in which an announcer asks a person onscreen about O'Donnell's opponent's sexuality: "Isn't Mike Castle cheating on his wife with a man?" The person onscreen replies with a knowing laugh, "That's the rumor." Huh? Is this a joke? What rumor?

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As underhanded campaign tactics go, baiting carries almost no consequences for the baiter; he or she can claim ignorance of anything but the literal meaning of the words being used to insinuate something very different. Baiting is adaptable to a wide variety of media—speeches, off-the-cuff comments, press releases, political ads. And given the Internet, it's more spreadable than ever. The most salacious or absurd baits easily go viral, often helped along by blog posts from people honestly decrying it.

In Mehlman's case, a reporter broke through this annoying cycle of rumors by just asking the man, and then pressed him until he came out and answered. Maybe this can become the future model: Combat the subtle and devious art of gay-baiting by just bluntly asking every time a bait is laid. It wouldn't hurt, either, for closeted gay politicians who vote against gay rights to come out of the closet while still in office and start voting for LGBT equality.

And so, without further ado, Slate's taxonomy of American political gay-baits.

The Euphemisms
A perfect baiting euphemism is many steps removed from the realm of sexual orientation and merely relies on certain preexisting association in the public's mind. In the past people used terms with sexual meaning—pervert or sexual deviant, for example. This generation has a new set of phrases, most notably, "San Francisco," "wine drinker," and even "renter" rather than homeowner.

This television ad run by Republican incumbent Sam Graves against Democrat challenger Kay Barnes in the 2008 Missouri 6th District congressional race is a classic, so packed with gay stereotypes that it could be mistaken for a parody of gay-baiting."In San Francisco," sneers the announcer, "Nancy Pelosi is throwing  … a ritzy California fundraiser celebrating [Kay] Barnes' San Francisco values."

One of the newer euphemisms to emerge is the "renter." In the 2008 race for Minnesota's 3rd District House seat, Republican Erik Paulsen's campaign repeatedly questioned Democrat Ashwin Madia's "lifestyle," a term frequently used by social conservatives in lieu of "sexual orientation." ("Lifestyle" implies there's a choice to the matter.) One specific the Paulsen campaign did cite was the fact that Madia had "never, never even owned a home." The subtext is not just that Madia didn't pay homeowner taxes. A renter is a transient, unwilling to settle down, promiscuous when it comes to real estate and, the campaign implied, who knows what else.

The Aggressive Metaphor
The classic of this category is the memo the Republican National Committee under Lee Atwater sent around in 1991. Titled "Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet," it compared the rising Speaker of the House's voting record to that of out gay congressman Barney Frank's. The slur met with criticism in almost every quarter, yet Foley, who had been married for 20 years at the time, felt he had no choice but to address the charges on national television, "I am, of course, not a homosexual," and deny them before his fellow Democrats, to the reported embarrassment of all involved.

Atwater, by then an acknowledged smear-master, initially claimed that there was nothing untoward about the title of the Foley memo, then added that he hadn't seen the document before it went out and fired his communications director.

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