Because I’ve been writing this column for several years, and get to talk to lots of amazing people, my friends, mostly the straight ones, like to quiz me about who’s gay, who’s not, and who’s in the closet.
This fishing expedition is mostly generational, since it’s mostly my contemporaries who inquire about the sexuality of celebrities and politicians. Those of us who are LGBTQ+ and over 50, still look on with low-level shock when someone we know announces they are queer.
For straight people in this demographic, being gay, or being in the closet is still something that they sensationalize. The current generation just shrugs. They might debate Harry Styles, for example, and that’s because he’s thrown up the question for debate. He’s often accused of gay- baiting, but if he were to come out tomorrow and say he was in a relationship with a man, most young people would simply congratulate him.
I always confess to the fact that I really don’t have any inside knowledge on anyone, and I hear the rumors just like everyone else. Rumors are just rumors, until someone comes forward and confirms or denies them. Meanwhile innuendo, and jokes about the person's sexuality abound.
For politicians, particularly in Congress, it’s a bit different. Capitol Hill is a very small community. When I worked there, I, like many, knew who was in the closet mainly because we'd see them in a gay bar or knew someone that had a relationship with them. There really were no secrets on the Hill.
For example, most of us knew former Wisconsin congressman Steve Gunderson was gay before he was outed on the House floor. I spoke to Gunderson on the 25th anniversary of that moment and wrote a column about it.
Gunderson was publicly thrown out of his closet, after right-wing Rep. Bob Dornan joked about Gunderson on the floor of the House of Representatives during a debate on a bill that would have discouraged school districts from adopting gay-friendly curricula. "My fellow Republican has a revolving door in his closet," said Dornan. "He's out. He's in. He's out. He's in."
It was all a way to poke and joke about Gunderson's sexuality.
“Clearly, we were living in different and difficult times regarding public officials being openly gay,” Gunderson told me. “At that time, there was no process for coming out as gay, nor were there any predetermined examples and parameters about how to come out.”
Today, there are 11 openly LGBTQ+ members of Congress. And, this year, for the first time ever, two gay men, one a Republican and one a Democrat, are running for Congress in New York’s Third Congressional District.
To be sure, not everyone is out. Whether they choose to remain in the closet might be for several reasons, because they’re fearful of the reactions of their constituents, that they still think being gay is a scarlet letter, or out of some deep seeded self-loathing which sometimes can backfire.
Case in point, former Illinois Republican congressman Aaron Schock. He was on a trajectory to be a rising star in the party, when he began to unravel, all the while denying rumors that he was gay. He eventually came out after a federal investigation into his campaign funds ended.
Everyone who I knew who still worked on or around the Hill knew he was gay, so when he came out, that wasn’t a surprise. It also proves that there are some U.S. legislators who are most definitely hiding. There are 535 members of Congress. The most recent Gallup poll estimated that 5.6 percent of the U.S. population is LGBT. Translating that to Congress, that would allow for at least 30 queer members, which means that in a very theoretical hypothesis, 19 are hiding in the closet.
Now, that brings us to what you’ve all been waiting for, ever since the title of this column drew you in — is Senator Lindsey Graham gay? First, I have no idea. I do know that, again, my friends who work on or around the Hill have their own opinions. In fact, one of them texted me on Saturday a story that appeared on Mediaite. “Did you see this????” She said with all those question marks.
The story was about a wild discussion the night before on MSNBC’s The 11th Hour, hosted by Stephanie Ruhle. She just replaced long-time network anchor Brian Williams.
Ruhle’s show has proven to be a bit more animated than Williams’s version. On Friday’s show, during one of the last segments, Ruhle hosted a panel that included Nancy Giles of CBS Sunday Morning‘s Nancy Giles, Ron Insana of CNBC, columnist Liz Plank, and lesbian comic and podcaster Judy Gold.
The group began to discuss Senator Graham’s ill-timed, ill-thought out, and cruel national abortion bill — which would ban the procedure nationally — and then sequed into a poke and joke about his sexuality.
“Why do this? Republicans don’t even support it across the board. He’s dividing Republicans,” Ruhle said. Which brought protest from Giles that Graham was telling women what to do with their bodies.
Giles's statement was seconded by Gold, who was goaded on to continue by Giles, “He’s never seen a vagina! He’s never seen a naked woman!” Gold blurted, as the whole panel laughed it up, including Ruhle. “And he is telling me?”
Of course, we all know what Gold was suggesting. She said it in a way that made it appear to be a joke, which is why everyone was laughing.
“We don’t know that for sure. We do not know that for sure,” Ruhle said.
“It’s probably true, it’s probably true,” Plank replied.
“Judy we would refer to that as an unconfirmed report,” CNBC’s Insana interjected.
“Someone needs to find out!” Plank corrected.
“I’m going to speculate…” Gold said. (See below, at the 35 minute mark.)
Speculate, speculation, speculating, speculative. Those words have appeared in the past when others have…well, speculated, about Senator Graham. Just this week, The View host Whoppi Goldberg had to walk back another poke and joke that hinted at Graham’s sexuality, and when she did backtrack, one viewer on Twitter wasn’t happy with her, “I have no idea why she had to scale back on a suggestive, subtle joke that half the country has already been speculating about anyway concerning Ms. Graham lol. You’re fine Whoopi.”
This week it would appear that Graham’s sexuality has gone from “speculative” to a national open secret. Is it right for “half the country” to be speculating about Graham? Is it ok to use his sexuality as punchline material? Is there a need for these comedians to walk back their jabs? Or are their jokes more a poke at a sensitive subject for Graham? If they are just innocent teasing, then why walk them back?
For as long as I can remember, and I’ve been following politics obsessively even before Graham was elected to the House in 1995, I’ve heard rumors about Graham. I’ve poked and joked about those rumors — not here — but during private conservations. In fact, to me this whole dance around Graham’s sexuality seems more like a sophmoric joke, especially with that uncomfortable “Lady G” nickname that trends on Twitter every other month.
The fact that he may or may not be gay, to me, seems far less important than the inherent danger he creates in his job as a bachelor senator. His flip flop about Trump from calling him a “jackass,” a “kook,” “a race-baiting bigot,” to last month saying there would be “riots in the streets” if Trump was prosecuted is an affront to the decorum of a United States senator.
His phone call to Georgia election officials was most likely illegal and completely outside his role as a representative of South Carolina.
His whiplash from condemning Trump for January 6 to condemning the January 6 committee is beyond unacceptable for someone who swore an oath to the constitution.
And, his absurd legislation of creating a national abortion law flies in the face of his repeated comments that abortion should be left to the states. His reversal, and his audacity to author a bill on behalf of women, when he is a loutish, 67-year-old white man who has never been married, never fathered a child, dealt with a pregnancy, dealt with a wife whose life was in jeopardy because of a pregnancy, or a daughter whose future was in danger…well, a real man wouldn’t be this sanctimonious.
Graham’s sexuality might be private, and the jokes about it juvenile and tinged with homophobia, but his efforts at tearing the fabric of American democracy is far more offensive. It's hard to get more angry at Judy Gold and Stephanie Ruhle than the man who's working overtime to take away their rights — and those of all American women.
Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, EqualPride.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.