Inside Sen. Craig's closet | Steven Petrow | Indy Week
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Inside Sen. Craig's closet 

Self-denial is the greatest shame

There seems to be no end to the collateral damage caused by the public sex sting of soon-to-be former Sen. Larry Craig. To his family. To his party. Indeed, to himself. At the outset of this tempest in an airport bathroom, I'd be less than honest if I didn't say that I felt some degree of empathy for Sen. Craig himself. "I am not gay. I have never been gay," he practically begged. "I don't do those kinds of things." But the evidence looks strong from his guilty plea that he did do those kinds of things, in addition to harboring a deeply divided self from his colleagues in the Senate, his constituents, and, no doubt, wrenchingly so from his wife and family. Perhaps, though, the greatest pain of all was self-inflicted.

For almost anyone who is gay or lesbian, like myself, we know the fear and shame of Sen. Craig's closet. Thirty years ago, when still an undergrad at Duke University, I lived a dual life, perhaps not unlike Craig's in many respects. By day I dated my sorority sweetheart—attending mixers and formals, basketball and football games—but by night (late night) I played pool and drank beer with the boys in the Triangle's off-the-grid bars.

Curiously, like Craig now, I didn't think of myself as gay—or worse, "homosexual"—and what I did after hours was deeply embedded in another part of my consciousness. (The shrinks have a fancy name for this: cognitive dissonance. In lay language, it's called self-deception.) I easily could have said: "I don't do those kinds of things," because, in my mind, I wasn't that kind of person. Indeed, this was the perfect cocktail: two parts denial; one, repression—shaken with fear.

I lived with my twisted secret year after year while at Duke, and as much as I succeeded in my studies as an Angier Biddle Duke Memorial Scholar or at becoming an editor at the Duke Chronicle, I felt the shame of my secret and feared the horror of it becoming known. On one of the first National Coming Out days, when all gays were supposed to wear blue jeans as a sign of solidarity, I was among those desperately searching my closet for a pair of khakis. That day, the sea of denim that was the usual Duke uniform had been replaced by a tan-clad army of insecure straights and scared, and closeted, gays like me.

Nor was my gradual coming out made any easier by some of my so-called role models: those professors I knew who lived clandestine lives, who no doubt resorted to the kind of bathroom tap dancing that Sen. Craig pled guilty to in early August. One of them, who liked college boys, made me an offer I could refuse. I suppose you would say this was the '70s version of "pay for play": If I had sex with him, I could be nominated by Duke for a Rhodes Scholarship. I passed on this "opportunity"; another friend seized it and, if memory serves me correctly, he won a Rhodes. The face of gay was not pretty.

And, it took its toll. In late December 1975, when 19 and a sophomore, this is what I wrote in my near constant companion of a journal about my homosexuality:

"What does a man gain by winning the world at the cost of his true self? Unanswerable. I value nothing over everything and in the end I will pay dearly one way or another. I am so lonely and so scared."

Two months later, I added this entry:

"In the end, and I know it shouldn't be said—it will be suicide. Why? There doesn't appear to be any alternative, I don't know. I will fight for years, but the end is the end. I'm angry at myself because I think that I'm homosexual. Here I am, I've got everything going for me and then there's this damn thing. I don't even know whether I'm gay for sure. I sort of wish I did; I could then commit myself to one life or another. But that is not possible now."

But eventually I did crawl out of my closet, telling my Tri Delt girlfriend, who replied: "No way, Petrow, you can't be!" "Yes, I am." I told my friends and several years later told my family. I wrote to myself: "I am slowly coming to terms with it by being a bit more honest in what I write. Euphemisms are on the wane and by speaking the truth I am relieving much of my inner turmoil. It's a slow, yes painful process—but it's something I must complete to live happily."

At some point in my 20s, however, I made a decision. I chose to come out completely and, at the same time, to forgo any thought of a political career (journalism seemed so much more accepting, but that's another story). Sadly, my decision seemed that binary. I wonder if that's what Larry Craig struggled with in his youth. Separated in age by a bit more than a decade, Craig and I came of age when the American Psychiatric Association still considered homosexuality a "sociopathic personality disturbance," and gays, when on television, appeared in the darkest of shadows literally and metaphorically.

Fast forward. This past spring I was invited to talk to a group called Duke Allies, which is mostly comprised of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) students, as well as some of their straight friends. On the one hand, it was overwhelming for me to know that there was a safe place for these young people on campus, where they could perfect the art of coming out, and start to shed their secret skins. The fact that the center is, ironically, but a stone's throw from the Kilgo Quad dorm where I had lived as closeted freshmen was not lost on me.

But for all the progress that has been made in the time since I had gone to school, I couldn't help but note that none of the young people in this group had yet come out to their families. Why? Fear of rejection, both financial and emotional. One junior told me this past week, asking not to have his name disclosed, that it was "more of a shame kind of thing that's part of the culture" that kept his friends closeted. Dr. Janie Long, the director of the center, says, "Practically speaking, it's the fear of losing funding, financial support. I've seen it happen with a couple of students and it's a constant ongoing battle."

Even today.

I was also curious about the impact of Sen. Craig's public confession on students. The same Duke student said to me: "The bad publicity scares them. His soliciting sex in public restrooms makes them more afraid to tell their parents. Their parents will associate them with people who have casual sex and that's not who they are." But then he added: "Of course, this is not the first time someone like this has been made public," referring to disgraced former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, who left office after his sexually explicit e-mails to male pages became known. "It makes parents worry about the safety and health [of their kids] and that it might be unsafe," the student told me.

Dr. Long also sees the negative ramifications of the Craig affair to the more than 200 students who use the center—and the hundreds of others who haven't even come out that far. "What Sen. Craig did perpetuates the notion that being gay is about promiscuity." She adds that she's also known some suicidal students at Duke who might think that "if that's all that being gay is about, they might as well kill themselves."

My very own—sad—déjà vu.

And, this is where I fear Sen. Craig's "lewd" behavior casts its darkest shadow. Not only do we know just about every detail of the 62-year-old senator peering through the crack of the stall door, his legs akimbo, his feet touching that of the decoy officer, his hand cradling the wall between them as a sign of want, his life in the shadows. But so does every teen and college student who may be thinking about coming out, having a full and loving life, maybe even being a politician one day.

This is the greatest shame of all, and for that, we should have no empathy whatsoever for Sen. Craig and his kind.

Steven Petrow is the immediate past president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, an award-winning journalist, and the author of the forthcoming memoir Pandora's Box.

For more coverage related to Pride and LGBT issues, see Bob Geary's news story, "Raleigh council elections could put domestic partner benefits on the table."


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