A number of straight journalists told me that they were confused by the emotional high point of New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey’s resignation speech last Thursday in Trenton.
“And so my truth is that I am a gay American,” the governor said, in a line replayed over and over again on television.
The moment I heard that statement—days before I learned that McGreevey had sought advice from the Human Rights Campaign on his choice of words—I instinctively understood its rhetorical power. With one artful phrase, the governor was joining his experience to that of millions of gay and lesbian people who came before him in arriving at their moment of truth, their coming out—while simultaneously tying his aspirations and theirs to those of all Americans who seek a life of liberty and happiness.
And even though I also immediately recognized that McGreevey’s statement provided no credible explanation for why he was resigning, I have to admit that I felt a catch in my throat as I watched the man come out on live TV.
That emotional response, however, has nothing to do with McGreevey’s effort to hold onto his office until November 15 in order to ensure that his successor is a Democrat.
Let’s make no mistake. James McGreevey resigned his office not because he is gay, nor because he had an extra-marital affair with a man nor, in all likelihood, because Golan Cipel, his one-time aide, threatened to charge him with sexual harassment.
James McGreevey resigned because he recognized that his appointment of Cipel, with whom he was having some sort of sexual contact—consensual or otherwise—to a high-paying homeland security advisory role, for which the man had no discernible qualifications, would never stand up to public scrutiny once New Jersey voters understood more about the relationship between the two men.
McGreevey’s action in hiring Cipel cannot be defended, and the governor’s lingering in office will not help the gay community, it will not help the Democratic Party, and it will not be in the long-term interest of his own reputation. He should vacate the governor’s mansion by September 1, to allow for a special election this November.
That said, others of us have things to answer for as well.
Despite the widespread characterization of McGreevey’s announcement as a bombshell, in fact, the Trenton press corps and political community had long harbored rumors about the governor’s sexual orientation, and even about his relationship with Cipel. Up until last week, however, it was never reported in any way other than through innuendo. I hope that my faith in the integrity of journalists is justified; that it only went unreported because nobody could get the facts on the record. But all of us journalists should consider whether we employed sufficient diligence in covering McGreevey’s tenure in Trenton. And we must also be reminded that the notion that an elected official’s private life is off limits crumbles when that person’s off-hours behavior inappropriately conflicts with his or her official duties.
Our community must also examine its reaction to the McGreevey resignation. In the immediate aftermath of the governor’s speech, prominent queer organizations issued statement’s lauding him for his “courage.”
Was that response appropriate?
For years, McGreevey hid his sexual orientation—and in the year since the same-sex marriage debate heated up, he came out squarely in opposition, even as he supported domestic partner rights.
The governor found his “courage” under the gun, choosing to fall on the noble sword of being gay rather than address the corruption underlying his truth.
In the hours before he resigned, he sought counsel from the Human Rights Campaign, which helped him formulate a dignified way to talk about being gay. But, wittingly or not, the group also helped McGreevey formulate his cover. As Duncan Osborne reports, HRC spokespeople insist that they didn’t know all the details behind the governor’s decision to resign, despite repeated conference calls. But, if in fact HRC officials did not press for more details even when they heard McGreevey planned to resign, were they implicitly saying that any elected official who is gay, but also married owes it to his or her constituents to bow out of public life?
I hope not.
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