Leave the Light On

On the Web site of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, an organization that “identifies, trains and supports open lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender candidates and officials,” you can search by state to find openly gay officials in office. The names and positions on the list are almost exclusively local. City councils. Boards of education. State House and Senate seats. There are exactly two openly gay representatives, Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank and Arizona Republican Jim Kolbe, and one openly lesbian representative, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin.

Of the three, only Baldwin ran for national office while fully proclaiming her sexuality. Frank and Kolbe both came out once in office, voluntarily, but with a little nudge, and Kolbe, given his party affiliation, has far trailed Frank in terms of gay advocacy. Last week there was a new addition to the Victory Fund's Web site. On the page for New Jersey, listed under John Loffredo, Asbury Park city councilman, and before Jim Traier, who sits on the Clifton Board of Education, is Governor Jim McGreevey.

McGreevey, of course, didn't run as a gay man. Could he have been elected as one? He clearly didn't believe so. Either way, says Robin Brand, vice president for campaigns and elections at the Victory Fund for Campaigns and Elections, "He's the first governor to be openly gay.”

While that's certainly technically true, it's surely not the way the gay community might have hoped to have claimed a first openly gay governor. While McGreevey's speech was notable in claiming his “truth” to be that of a “gay American,” would McGreevey's political fate have been different if, say, he had come out after his first divorce? Or even earlier? Would, without the threat of extortion, McGreevey ever have tried to be the kind of open candidate that the Victory Fund would like to support?

In Asbury Park, at a gay bar called Georgie's, bartender Anthony Burlew doesn't think McGreevey would have found himself in the governor's mansion had he run as a gay candidate.

“I don't think this state, or any state, is ready for that,” said Burlew, in a phone conversation, with no small degree of sadness.

That said, he wishes McGreevey hadn't stepped down -- that, if there hadn't been so much controversy around his disclosure, he might have survived as a gay governor who came out in office -- and says that those he's spoken to outside the gay community have almost uniformly expressed the same sentiment.

“The terms he used to describe himself,” says Brand at the Victory Fund, which is based in Washington, “as a ‘gay American,' are very positive terms. I would think that language sat well with the gay and lesbian community, though there are other circumstances involved in this issue.”

Indeed, Burlew talked about how he was proud that the governor hadn't shied away from calling himself gay. It all supports the flawed model of run-as-straight, come-out-after-establishing-political-credibility that seems the unfortunate, if still effective, best path to gay visibility in higher office. But were McGreevey not tainted by corruption, his strong statement of gay truth is still skewed by how unbelievably depressing it all is, when you move away from the tabloid fodder, to listen to the story of a man who married not once but twice to keep up the appearance of a good political family that backs the family-man politician. McGreevey's evolution into a gay American was one he had obviously long believed would keep him from a political career. The events of the last week have raised the question, with only three national elected officials who have run -- and won -- while already out, how far are we from electing a gay governor?

On the afternoon of McGreevey's historic press conference, I was riding my bike through Provincetown, the gay mecca at the very tip of Cape Cod. By the early evening, every conversation had shifted from weather and tea dances to New Jersey. Each August, it seems, there is some kind of controversy that turns the chatty strip of Provincetown bars and stores from breezy beach talk to politics. One summer it was the pursuit of former Congressman Gary Condit; last summer it was the blackout.

This year it was the McGreevey announcement that had everyone on their front steps; all the bars had a television turned to the recaps, every visiting comic and drag queen weighed in. A middle-aged lesbian standing in her garden watching the masses stroll down Commercial Street the night of the announcement said that McGreevey's press conference showed that there are gay people “in every level of government” and called his statements “courageous,” the same word Human Rights Campaign Executive Director Cheryl Jacques used. A 30-something gay man commented that “McGreevey had made a lot of mistakes until now,” but was “finally making the right choice.”

A woman who worked with gay and lesbian victims of violence worried that this would conjure stereotypes of the “predatory” gay man. Justifying her worry was Pat Buchanan on Hardball that night, telling Chris Matthews that plenty of men in marriages had “urges” that they found ways to suppress.

It's a peculiar time. While Gallup Polls show that Americans believe there are more gay men and lesbians in their midst than statistics account for (recent polls say Americans believe the gay community is 20 percent of the population, not the 10 percent that's always quoted), teen literature has begun to incorporate gay characters as central figures (not just quirky or maudlin side stories), Queer Eye for the Straight Guy rolls into another year of buffing and polishing, and gay marriages dominate headlines and news cycles -- with all this visibility it's still seen as politically devastating not to run for office with a wife and children. (Wife more than husband, as we're still pretty much talking about men; see my last piece on the atrociously low numbers of women in politics.)

And if you're single, you still run scared from being labeled gay. Witness Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who as recently at two years ago issuing preemptive press releases protesting against rumors. Just because she is a 40-something single woman, she said, didn't mean she was a lesbian.

“We are starting to break the statewide barrier,” says Brand.

But what McGreevey's story points ups is not only that there are closeted gay men and lesbians in all levels of government -- indeed, of course, in all areas of society -- but that, more importantly, the path to success in politics is still seen as narrow at best, and closed at worst. What McGreevey's announcement -- and impending resignation -- highlights is not that we have the country's first gay governor but that we don't.

Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent.