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and Rob Morris with Bruce Bawer
I made Steve Gunderson, the first openly gay Republican congressman, very angry earlier this year—indirectly, at least. I wrote an article in Washington City Paper (“Republicans Support Gay Rites,” 4/5) noting the irony that an AIDS fund-raising party sexily advertised in gay publications was to be held in a congressional office building. While most Republicans fulminated against same-sex marriage and fought increased AIDS funding, they seemed to have no trouble with a gay party, called “Cherry Jubilee,” in their work space. It was a double standard, I thought.
But Marc Morano, a free-lance “journalist” who writes for loony-right publications, saw my item and attended another Cherry Jubilee event that weekend—the Saturday-night dance. (The party in the Rayburn House Office Building was billed as a “recovery brunch” on Sunday, a few hours after the dance.) Morano then self-published a ludicrous “story” about the dance, saying that wild, naked gay men were blowing each other on the dance floor, snorting drugs in the toilet stalls, and fighting with frightened security guards. He erroneously fingered Gunderson as a dance sponsor.
In gay Washington, Morano’s charges were giant news. Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams wrote a column, and Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) blasted Gunderson for his association with the event.
Gunderson, who had simply secured space for the Sunday brunch and had no role in the dance, was furious. He answered Dornan’s charges in a rare “Point of Personal Privilege” on the House floor, meticulously refuting even the silliest charges about the dance, which Gunderson hadn’t attended. Exaggerating nearly as much as Morano, Gunderson gushed that “Cherry Jubilee represented the best of the American tradition…the American family…[and] America’s Judeo-Christian ethic.”
He even called the event organizers some of “Newt Gingrich’s shining lights upon a hill.” Cherry Jubilee received much more news coverage after Gunderson’s weird defense than it had before.
Reading House and Home, the new memoir Gunderson and spouse Rob Morris have written, you begin to understand why he was so defensive. The book chronicles years of anguish about his homosexuality and his long struggle to acknowledge that two men could create a true “family”—a word the churchgoing, farm-raised Gunderson cherishes.
Much of the book is touching, but its mission has less to do with telling a true story than with painting an instructive picture: Gunderson desperately wants to show readers that he loves family, God, and country. We read of the beauty of small-town Wisconsin, the good-natured common sense of his rural constituents, and the values he learned growing up on a dairy farm.
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He hails from a town called Pleasantville, where his mother ran a “general store.” He mentions—twice—that his congressional district has the smallest percentage of minorities of any in the nation. We hear from his pastor, and we meet his huge family. The book’s cover photo (which shows Gunderson and Morris in a slight embrace) is actually sepia-toned. He’s so homespun he’s probably dizzy. Everything about the book is designed to convince us that you can be gay and still be the whitest, most boring man in America.
House and Home is really three books in one. There’s the standard political memoir of Statesman Gunderson. There’s a gay man’s memoir, complete with the usual coming-out story, boy-meets-boy story, and the writers’ views on gay politics. And there’s a truly poignant AIDS memoir that deals with four friends who have succumbed to the disease.
Like most political memoirists, Statesman Gunderson endlessly trumpets his own reasonableness and supposedly above-the-fray career of reluctant service. He prefers not to be called a “moderate Republican” but a “governing Republican.” He doesn’t make clear how he got involved in politics in the 1970s, saying almost nothing about fund-raising, networking, or strategy: Suddenly he’s elected to the state legislature, has a friend in the governor’s mansion, and then, in 1979, is on his way to Congress. It all seems so natural.
Gunderson says he usually lets other people get angry over an issue—and then chimes in with a moderate, reasonable solution: “In 1995, for instance, rather than allow the D.C. schools program to become bogged down in predictable conflicts over school vouchers or local control, I raised the whole issue to a new level by seeking to create, in the nation’s capital, a world-class schools initiative.” This is ridiculous. Gunderson, appointed by Gingrich to study D.C. schools, helped craft a nice blueprint. But it had little effect, in part because most locals didn’t support his voucher compromise.
And anyway, Gunderson’s policy views didn’t get him this book contract. What made this book publishable is that Gunderson is now both proudly gay and proudly Republican—a political combination that fascinates Americans, who generally associate gay rights with the left. Recently, Gunderson and Morris have enjoyed fawning press coverage, but the truth about Gunderson’s homosexuality and about his party’s attitude toward homosexuality is much more complicated than either the press coverage or this book lets on.
For years Gunderson hid his homosexuality, and the central conflict of House and Home, and of Gunderson’s life, is over whether and how to come out of the closet.
It’s understandable that Gunderson concealed his sexual orientation early on. After moving to Washington in 1979, he prayed every morning for God to change him. Even after he met Morris in 1983 and they had moved in together, Gunderson kept the young architect at bay, never quite committing because he felt a gay life couldn’t offer him the family and stability he longed for.
But by the late 1980s, Gunderson was living a full, happy gay life. He and Morris had tons of gay friends, frequented gay bars (like Badlands, the cheesy 22nd Street NW club where they met), and attended social occasions as a couple. Everyone who knew them—from the next-door neighbors to their parents to Newt Gingrich—knew they were gay.
All this time, no one breathed a word. And no one asked—not official Washington, not his constituents, not reporters, not anyone. The silence allowed Gunderson to live a double life for many years—a life in which he could enjoy the happiness of being honest in Washington while eliding the truth at home. It’s frustrating that Gunderson doesn’t reflect on this silence in his memoir. He never comments on the web of social conventions that for decades allowed gay generals, senators, judges, lobbyists—Democrat and Republican alike—to live semi-open gay lives with few consequences, while most gay Americans faced a mountain of unrestrained bigotry.
Should Gunderson have come out in the 1980s? He argues pragmatically that if he had he would have lost his seat in Congress and thus lost influence over the GOP on gay issues. A noisy admission of his homosexuality would have precluded quiet reasoning with people like Gingrich (by then a good friend).
Others disagreed. Gay radicals—most viciously Steve Michael, the local ACT UP activist—despised Gunderson and threw drinks at him. (In an apparent attempt to deny Michael publicity, Gunderson gives him a pseudonym in the book.) DCQ Fag Boy News said local gays should “boycott the Dairy Queen’s dick and butt”—not realizing that Morris has sole access to both.
But these silly excesses contained a kernel of truth: Gunderson’s coming out would have helped show ignorant Americans that anyone can be gay. Gunderson’s power to break stereotypes was at least as great as his power to persuade Newt Gingrich: In the end, he didn’t influence Gingrich or the Republicans much—neither has budged on core gay issues. And Gunderson’s eventual coming out—after months of cat-and-mouse nondenials—has achieved the kind of nationwide attention that his quiet negotiating never could.
In 1994, Gunderson won re-election despite numerous stories about his homosexuality. Perhaps he could have done so in 1992, or 1990. For a young gay teenager growing up on a dairy farm, Gunderson might be a great role model. Could he have assured others, earlier, that they weren’t monsters?
In House, Gunderson says he realizes the power of being publicly out, though he stops short of saying he should have come out earlier. Gunderson also says radicals on the right (Dornan) and left (Michael) had no right to “out” him and that reporters shouldn’t have printed their charges. Gunderson says we should have kept his secret because he wasn’t hypocritical: He didn’t vote for anti-gay bills. (Indeed, he does have a good, if not perfect, voting record on gay issues.)
But Gunderson tried to have it both ways: By the early ’90s, he not only had a gay private life but was supporting gay and AIDS causes publicly. He referred to “Rob and I” in speeches to gay audiences, and everyone around him knew he was gay. He had never said the words “I am gay,” but that was a technicality. When the speaker of the House, the president, and the first lady know you’re a fag, it’s not exactly a secret.
Why then should the rest of us lie for him? Reporters certainly shouldn’t, especially when his party opposes his right to marry his mate. Once Gunderson effectively stopped lying about himself, he couldn’t ask others to do so. Dornan, for once, was right: If a big gay group can know about Gunderson, his constituents can, too. There should be no double standards.
In the book Gunderson calls Dornan’s outing an “attack,” which is unfortunate. Implying that someone is gay isn’t an attack unless you believe homosexuality is terrible. And until recently Gunderson still called his homosexuality an “irrelevant factor”—which is like saying Thurgood Marshall’s race was irrelevant.
Finally, Gunderson has a nettlesome tendency to play martyr. He talks of a religious-right “war” on him and wonders how God put him in his awful position. Meanwhile, he could have ended the war and the media attention by filling the vacuum. He could have simply said he was gay rather than repeatedly dodging the question from 1991, when it was raised by the Associated Press, until October 1994.
What finally pushed Gunderson out of the closet were his friends with AIDS. Their four stories are lovingly told here, and no one could read them without tears. Gunderson’s most honest admission comes on Page 152: “I had not done enough for people with AIDS….My friends and fellow gay men were dying, and here I was, a leader of the party of Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, doing too little to combat their antigay rhetoric.”
The other force pushing Gunderson in the right direction was Morris. The best parts of House and Home are the few pages he wrote, which are in a different typeface. Morris is wittier, more honest, and less wordy than Gunderson. Whereas Gunderson waffles that Gingrich “is considered, fairly or unfairly, a vicious homophobe,” (emphasis added) for example, Morris knows Gingrich won’t work for gay equality as speaker.
Gunderson recently said he will keep his 1994 promise to retire next year. Some constituents had hoped to draft him in a write-in campaign, but he stopped their efforts after Gingrich informed him that religious-right organizations would falsely tell voters that Gunderson is HIV-positive. He shouldn’t have backed down: He gave the bigots a victory without a fight.
But if House and Home makes anything clear, it is that Gunderson hates controversy and conflict. Reason and moderation are his watchwords. The question is, will those traits be enough to achieve gay equality?CP