Lindsey Graham is a formidable figure in Congress: A third-term Republican senator who also served eight years in the House, Graham is a national security hawk and a foreign policy expert beloved in his home state of South Carolina, despite his occasionally moderate leanings.
Yet ever since Graham formally announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, his candidacy has been treated as something of a joke. Thus far, Graham’s bachelor status has attracted the most attention. His promise to have “a rotating first lady” drew giggles and jokes—including a quip by Sen. Mark Kirk that Graham was a “bro with no ho.” Graham then gave a somewhat melancholy interview insisting that being single did not make him a “defective person.”
Lurking behind the media’s fascination with Graham’s singlehood is an assumption about his sexuality. Gay rumors have long plagued the senator, and other South Carolina politicians have even implied that Graham is closeted. (Graham has declared that he “ain’t gay.”) These whispers become shouts on the late-night circuit, where comedians like Jon Stewart and John Oliver earn laughs by ridiculing Graham’s ostensibly effeminate mannerisms. Recently, Larry Wilmore felt compelled to push back against one of his guests, who laughingly stated she thinks Graham is gay. “Here’s the thing,” Wilmore said:
Sometimes people … mak[e] that insinuation, like there’s something wrong with you if you are single at a certain age. They always put you down as damaged or gay, like those are related.
Wilmore is on to something here. The mainstream media’s coverage of Graham’s bachelor status may not blatantly hint that the senator is gay—but it doesn’t need to. Even in 2015, many Americans still assume that anybody who isn’t partnered at a certain age must be homosexual. The fact that Graham talks in a somewhat stereotypically gay voice only makes the assumption more irresistible.
But when Stewart performs his effeminate Graham impression, he isn’t just suggesting the senator is gay—he’s mocking him for it. That’s a problem. Were Graham openly gay, no progressive comedian would dare ridicule him for his manner of speech. Graham is only fair game because he’s perceived to be closeted. The implication that he’s gay and lying about it is what makes the joke amusing. (That is, if you think it’s funny at all.)
It’s difficult to draw a direct line between these jeering late-night jibes, the mainstream media’s winking coverage of Graham, and the senator’s striking unpopularity among GOP voters. (He is currently polling around 1 percent, lagging behind train wrecks like Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum.) But it’s hard to believe the media’s refusal to take Graham seriously isn’t having some effect on his terrible numbers. Rather than pressing Graham to explain his apparent support for drone strikes without due process, anchors are forcing him to justify his lack of a wife. Nobody looks presidential when they’re anxiously explaining why they’re single in their 50s.
If Graham were more traditionally masculine, I seriously doubt he’d be dogged by so many questions about his bachelorhood. The fun of poking Graham about his personal life lies in the ambiguous presentation of his sexuality. Most Republican voters may not currently think Graham is gay. But they’ll be all but required to consider that question if Graham’s media coverage continues to dwell on his romantic and sexual choices. Graham may well be an awful presidential candidate for the Republican Party. But an analysis of his qualifications shouldn’t rest on the giggling assumption that he’s stuck in the closet.