Should politicians have to come out?

Feb 21, 2018

I have always been attracted to women with dark hair. If you find that statement utterly irrelevant to anything I do professionally, that’s because it is.

Now, I’m fortunate that a brilliant woman with dark hair loves me, and I’m sure that makes me better at what I do. But nobody would ask me about that if I were to run for office.

They might rightly have questions about my competence. But nobody would care what sort of women I was attracted to — as long as they were adults — even if I were young and single.

But what if I happened to be gay?

That’s a question many people in politics who happen to be gay or lesbian are facing, every day. Not long ago, the only way a gay person could be elected to anything was to be as deeply in the closet as possible.

This made for a lot of hypocrisy and personal unhappiness. Today we are in a new, but uncertain world. The Supreme Court has decreed that people of the same sex can marry in every state of the union, and those marriages must be universally recognized.

However, in Michigan, an employer can still fire or refuse to hire you for being gay, a weird anomaly that makes no sense. And there are also still voters who don’t accept homosexuality and who would be strongly inclined to vote against any openly gay candidate.

Should they have a right to know? Is it anyone’s business?

This is something currently being faced by one candidate for higher office, a man who has great personal and professional integrity and has been a highly effective legislator.

People in both parties like and respect him, something which in itself is considerably rare these days. I’ve known him for many years, and like most people, supposed he was gay, but never asked him, nor for that matter, thought much about it.

What I thought about was what he was doing about things like road funding. To the best of my knowledge, he has never talked about his sexuality at all in public.

But should he have to? Dana Nessel, a candidate for attorney general who does happen to be openly gay, tells me that some gay people deeply resent what they see as the hypocrisy of anybody who remains in the closet, and will vote against them.

There are, however, people who don’t want to face the burden of telling aged parents or grandparents who they fear may not be accepting. Should they have to?

This is a dilemma for journalists as well as politicians. Personally, I think we ought to have a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” in covering politics for a number of reasons.

Mostly, that’s because when you inject sex into any discussion, it tends to blot out everything else. We gave too little thought to too many important issues back in the two years we were obsessing over Monica Lewinsky and her blue dress.

Frankly, I wouldn’t care if someone made love to a cotton gin if they could fix the schools and the roads. But there is a real question as to how much of their private lives a candidate needs to reveal to the public. I suspect we will be struggling with this for some time to come.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.