Popping The Question

Single? Of a certain age? If you're a politician, the rumors will fly.

ASKED AND ANSWERED: Atty. Gen. Charlie Crist.Popping The QuestionSingle? Of a certain age? If you're a politician, the rumors will fly.Political WhoreBy Wayne GarciaQuestioning sexual proclivities is the oldest trick in the political book.

I'd barely begun talking about Charlie Crist and the ramifications of the "Are you gay?" question posed to him at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club when Frank Sanchez could see where I was going.

"Am I gay? No, I'm not," said Sanchez, who lost the 2001 Tampa mayoral race to Pam Iorio, and who had to contend with rumors of homosexuality throughout his campaign and beyond.

Sanchez is handsome, middle-aged and a snappy dresser. He's also single. Using the age-old political formula that was used to measure Florida's Attorney General, then Sanchez, too, must be gay.

Never mind that Sanchez was engaged to be married during his mayoral campaign. The fact that the engagement was broken after the race was "proof" to those who watch such intimate personal details that the rumors were right.

Unlike Crist, Sanchez never had the question posed to him publicly and directly during the campaign. But he heard the whispers coming from the opposition.

Sanchez said he believes the question is part of the modern political landscape and one politicians must answer, no matter how distasteful.

"Politicians have to feel compelled to answer that and answer it honestly," Sanchez said.

Unlike taking a pass on the drug question or even infidelity (President Clinton perfected the non-answer to both of those queries), the gay/lesbian question - if posed - demands an honest answer, Sanchez said. At least, if you're straight it does.

If you are gay or lesbian, deciding whether or how to answer is far trickier.

The idea of outing gay and lesbian politicians is not new, but it certainly has gathered some steam in Florida in the past year. The brouhaha over Crist followed an expose that outed two top aides to Republican Senate hopeful Mel Martinez. That revelation gained little traction in the mainstream press but burned through the GOP's Christian community as opponents from that camp tried unsuccessfully to knock down Martinez's strength.

The Martinez story came on the heels of a controversy surrounding South Florida Congressman Mark Foley, who quit the race (citing family illness) for the U.S. Senate in 2004 shortly after holding a press conference to denounce rumors and questions about his personal life as "revolting and unforgivable." He refused to address the question of whether he is gay. New Times Broward Palm Beach, an alternative newsweekly, did that for him in great detail shortly afterward.

And to be technical, the Crist affair is hardly an outing. No one has produced evidence of a gay life for the attorney general, nor have they come forth with the pictures to prove it. Crist flatly and quickly denied it.

Rumors of Crist's alleged homosexuality have been stock in trade in Florida Republican politics for years. I sat in more meetings than I can remember where I heard, "I know the guy who knows the guy who has the pictures with Charlie…." If they exist, I never saw them.

"Those kinds of rumors [regarding Crist's sexuality] have been going around for years and years and years," said Jim Pease, president of the Tampa Bay Chapter of Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian rights organization within a party not widely revered these days for its commitment to human rights. "Nobody has put a lot of credence in them before." And they won't now, Pease added.

For Nadine Smith, former newspaper reporter and openly lesbian Tampa City Council candidate in the 1990s, the issue isn't the person's sexual activity; it is his or her sexual identity.

"I don't reduce gay or lesbian identity to whom you have had sex with," said Smith, now executive director of Equality Florida, a human rights organization. "It's an identity, and so by definition, if you don't identify, then you're not."

Smith doesn't favor outing politicians, a subject of great and heated debate both inside and outside the gay community. As a former journalist and politician, however, Smith understands how some try to justify it under the rubric of "outing hypocrisy."

"Some people make the distinction between somebody who is closeted and somebody who is closeted and behaving hypocritically," she said. "They believe they are outing the hypocrisy.

"Are you doing it to out hypocrisy, or are you doing it to hurt someone politically?" Smith asks.

In Crist's case, it is pretty clear that the motive in asking the question had to do more with politics than righting hypocrisy. The query came from Democrat stalwart and Tampa Bay feminist pioneer Lee Drury DeCesare.

So let's dispense with the holier-than-thou rationales: Outing is done for political purposes, whether it is an activist asking the question or a reporter doing the dirty work. It is often aimed at Republicans, since many reporters can't fathom how someone could be gay or lesbian and still find the Republican Party appealing (the Log Cabin Republicans notwithstanding).

The Tampa Bay area has no openly gay or lesbian politicians. That doesn't mean, however, that there are no gay or lesbian elected officials. At least two come to mind. Both choose, for whatever reason, personal or political, not to discuss their sexual orientation on the record.

One is a former client from my political consulting days. I will not "out" my friend on these pages, but we did have a short chat about the Charlie Crist situation this week.

We talked about the political ramifications of sex and sexual orientation.

"Does it really matter any more?" my friend asked.

Unfortunately, in politics, it does.

Tying up loose ends: Wal-Mart's plan to open a new supercenter in Tarpon Springs (detailed in my January 12 column) was approved by a 3-2 vote of the Tarpon City Commission after an all-nighter that saw hundreds turn out on both sides of the issue. The vote came at about 6:45 a.m. Wednesday (January 19) after more than 12 hours of debate. Even if you hate the decision, you have to hand it to the Tarpon City Commission for not shutting down dissent but sitting there and listening to everyone who came out for and against the giant retailer.

The Political Whore watched with shock and awe Friday morning as the Today Show outed Spongebob Squarepants, whose relationship with his pink friend Patrick and overall message of tolerance has drawn the ire of the American Family Association. You can reach Political Whore at (813) 832-6427 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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