Sex and politics in America's public lavatories
September 25, 2007
Idaho Senator Larry Craig now wants to change his guilty plea. (Dennis Cook/ Associated Press)
Larry Craig wants a judge to let him withdraw his guilty plea and clear his name. And as the breaking-news bells on the cable networks clang, and correspondents analyze the salacious details of the case from the courthouse steps, it's hard not to grin.
Actually, it's hard not to laugh out loud, and goodness knows an awful lot of people here have been doing just that. Craig's legal appeal is not just ironic. For the Washington press corps, it's like contemplating a fat, ripe plum hanging from a low branch.
Craig, you will recall, is the senior U.S. senator from Idaho who was charged with lewd conduct in June after his encounter with an undercover policeman in a Minneapolis airport bathroom known to be a hot locale for clandestine, anonymous male sex.
It gets better.
Craig is also an anti-gay-rights politician, a stern, judgmental fellow who preached "family values" from his pew in the Republican party's most socially conservative wing.
It gets even better than that.
After reportedly peering at the undercover policeman through a crack between the door and the frame of the bathroom stall, and after sending what are considered pickup signals from the adjoining toilet — toe-tapping and swiping his hands under the partition, and finally nudging the cop's foot with his — Craig tried waving around his Senate credentials at the officer, then launched into an explanation about how he naturally assumes a "wide stance" while doing his business in the bathroom.
Finally, he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly behaviour, apparently because the arresting officer promised he wouldn't leak the story to reporters. When it did leak, Craig called a news conference to announce he wouldn't resign because he'd done nothing wrong, that he'd been harassed into the guilty plea, and that above all, he's not one of them.
"I am not gay," he declared. "I have never been gay."
Not so fast
Now, though, now that everybody has had a good snicker and the late-night comics have feasted and Americans have generally enjoyed the whole spectacle, because exposure of hypocrisy is one of those things you're still allowed to thoroughly enjoy, serious people are discussing the grave implications of Larry Craig's predicament.
Several of the larger newspapers have denounced the decision to charge Craig in the first place.
And the American Civil Liberties Union, a group for which socially conservative Republicans generally don't have much regard, has filed a brief with the court in Minneapolis arguing against the bathroom sting operation.
It was abusive, says the ACLU. Had airport authorities truly been concerned about what was going on in their public washrooms, why not simply post a sign informing patrons that sex in the toilet stalls is not allowed and that the premises are randomly checked by a security guard?
ACLU executive director Anthony Romero complains that Craig was effectively charged with intending to do something.
As a result, the ACLU concludes, the sting operation was unconstitutional. What Craig was doing, at worst, was akin to flirting, say critics of the sting, and flirting is a form of speech, and speech is supposed to be protected in America.
But of course, Craig wasn't just flirting. He was flirting with another man, which in the eyes of many Americans is deviant behaviour, especially when it happens in a toilet.
A big flirt
"There is a very powerful double standard," says Aaron Belkin of the University of California. Belkin is an authority on the U.S. military's conflicted "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy toward gays.
He says it's easy to explain why heterosexuals seldom wind up charged as a result of their mating dances. A lot of heterosexual sex "would never be forced into the bathroom in the first place."
Belkin points to an incident on an American Airlines flight last year in which a man was told to get his head off the shoulder of his boyfriend in the adjoining seat, with whom he had cuddled up to take a nap.
Issuing the same request to a straight couple, he says, would be ridiculous. "Our culture is so homophobic and so panicked about sex," says Belkin, "that laws can be used in such a way as to define innocent gestures as disorderly and lewd behaviour."
Certainly Craig's own political party makes the distinction. The Republican hierarchy gave him the bum's rush the moment the story broke.
Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential aspirant who'd gratefully accepted Craig's support just days earlier, turned around and denounced him as "disgusting." Fellow senator, John McCain, another presidential candidate, immediately called on Craig to resign.
And the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, exacted precisely that commitment from Craig, who is now angering his fellow Republicans by trying to renege.
No such pressure has been brought to bear on David Vitter, another married Republican senator who acknowledged "sinning" after a New Orleans prostitute revealed their long-standing business relationship.
That's all played into the hypocrisy angle of the story, which remains the focus, as Craig attempts to withdraw his guilty plea.
The other irony here — or is it hypocrisy? — is that some people who would normally be speaking out about the propriety of the charge itself remain silent, evidently enjoying the discomfort of an enemy too much to raise an objection.
Gay advocates and social activists have preferred to talk instead about how this only proves that just as many Republicans are gay as Democrats.
For them, Anthony Romero of the ACLU has this admonishment: "Senator Craig has not always been a great friend of civil liberties, but you shouldn't have to endorse the civil liberties of others to keep your own."