Opinions split on whether scandal taints gay officials

Activists point out that gay politicians are not more inclined to committing sex offenses.

Published October 3, 2006

Fifteen years ago, fewer than 50 elected officials at the state, local and federal level nationwide were openly gay or lesbian.

Today, that number is 325.

There are mixed opinions about whether the Mark Foley scandal will make it harder for gays and lesbians to join their ranks by winning elections. Gay activists and political insiders say it won't.

"This is a situation that is specific to Mr. Foley, and it shouldn't translate or spill over to other gay candidates or elected officials," said Stephen Gaskill, spokesman for the Florida Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Democratic Caucus. "There hasn't been a huge antigay reaction or backlash at this point."

Foley has not said publicly that he is gay. His apparent interest in teenage boys shouldn't give voters the idea that gays are more likely to commit sex offenses against children, said Rick Boylan, president of the Stonewall Democrats in Pinellas County.

"I think that there are people on the far right who very much want people to make that conclusion, that if you elect a gay person, they're going to be a pedophile and they're going to have these types of problems," Boylan said. "And that's definitely not the case."

Some conservative groups have suggested gay elected officials are more likely than straight politicians to get involved in sex scandals.

The Chicago-based antihomosexual group Americans for Truth released a report Monday suggesting a high number of openly gay elected officials have been ensnared in sex scandals. It cited the case of a gay congressman who had sex with a 17-year-old boy in the 1970s, and a second who solicited a 16-year-old boy for sex in 1980.

"It doesn't mean every gay man is a pedophile," said Peter LaBarbera, the group's president. "But I think there is an aspect to male homosexuality ... there obviously is this adolescent angle."

Gay activists say voters are sophisticated enough to know that's untrue.

"The statistics show that those claims are completely baseless," said Patrick Salmon, executive vice president of the Log Cabin Republicans.

"They are being dishonest, and they are being misleading, and they are trying to perpetuate false stereotypes about gays and lesbians," he said.

Even Mathew Staver, chairman of the conservative Liberty Counsel in Orlando, said Foley is different from other gay candidates.

"I think it certainly doesn't help the gay and lesbian causes, but I wouldn't want to paint everyone with the same brush as Mr. Foley," Staver said.

Jay Barth, a professor at Hendrix College in Arkansas who specializes in Southern politics and gay politics, said Foley likely would have been re-elected if he had come out of the closet years ago, even though his district is heavily Republican.

"If there had been no evidence of underage sexual activity, my sense is he that he probably could have survived," Barth said.

Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said this episode, if anything, could prompt more secretly gay elected officials to come out of the closet.

"It may lead to more openness because people ... are much more tolerant of gays in all aspects of political life," Paulson said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at 727 892-2359 or tisch@sptimes.com.