As the scandal over former Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley and his come-ons to underage male pages simmered, gay Hill staffers were feeling the heat. Some Republicans circulated the storyline that a “gay mafia” insulated Foley from reproach, covering up or downplaying his untoward and possibly illegal behavior.
Weeks later, the scandal has left staffers and others who ostensibly make up that “mafia” feeling burned. Far from being a shadowy cabal of hyper-protective operatives, those who consider themselves part of the Hill’s gay community say their social and professional network operates like so many others in a town where who you know trumps everything, and the line between work and play is fuzzy at best.
Staffers, lobbyists and activists describe a network that is at once social and professional, an informal group with members just as likely to pass along information about job openings as about apartments for rent or restaurant recommendations.
Many of those interviewed for this article did not want to be identified by name for reasons that included the sensitive nature of the topic, and fear of upsetting friends and colleagues.
But in one regard the gay community on the Hill is nothing like most of Washington: It is largely bipartisan. Unlike most heterosexual Republican and Democratic staffers — who socialize almost exclusively among members of their own party — gay staffers, lobbyists and others in Capitol Hill’s orbit frequently break bread and down cocktails with political opponents.
“We may be the last bastion, counterintuitively, of that old willingness to socialize with members of the opposite party,” says Mark Glaze, a partner in the Raben Group consulting firm and a former House staffer. “We’re the last of the Tip O’Neills and Ronald Reagans who would bash each other during the day and have drinks together at night.”
Many say that being gay, particularly in the buttoned-up world of politics, defines them more than the party for which they vote or work.
“I think being gay comes before political affiliation because it goes to your core being in a way that parties don’t,” says one longtime Democratic staffer. “A lot of us have been discriminated against our whole lives and we find it very comfortable to be around people like us.”
The bipartisanship also stems from the fact that many gay staffers tend to live in the same few neighborhoods and frequent the same handful of restaurants, nightclubs and bars. That closeness creates a greater sense of community, they say.
Take Thursday nights at the Duplex Diner, a popular hangout among gay staffers and other Hill types. On those nights, Republicans and Democrats gather for an informal happy hour of drinks and gossip.
“There’s all kinds of back-slapping — it’s like the Caucus Room, except with a bunch of gay guys,” says one lobbyist who frequents the diner.
Aside from the Duplex Diner, other haunts include J.R.’s Bar & Grill on 17th Street off Dupont Circle; Cobalt, a dance club a few blocks away; and Halo, an upscale Logan Circle lounge.
Those are located in the neighborhoods popular among gays, which also include up-and-coming (and therefore more affordable on public-servant salaries) LeDroit Park and Columbia Heights.
For Hill types, those well-known bars hold a special place in the constellation of D.C.’s gay establishments. None of those hangouts is considered politically red or blue, Hill patrons say.
“We have the same friends, live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same restaurants,” Glaze says, “so it’s only natural that the culture trumps how you feel about the estate tax.”
Although the vibe is bipartisan in most social situations, party positions on gay issues have created an undeniable rift. Some Democrats say they struggle to understand how their friends can work for Republican members who support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage or who use anti-gay rhetoric. Republican staffers say Democrats can close ranks when such issues arise, leaving them feeling frozen out.
One gay staffer for an advocacy group says he is a Democrat who has many Republican friends. Usually, they deal with their political differences by employing a large dose of humor. “There is a ton of joking and ribbing that goes on,” he says. “The e-mails fly.”
“You either grit your teeth and laugh about it, or else you’d go crazy,” says a Democratic Hill staffer.
Among straight Hill staffers, bipartisan couples are as rare as issues on which Mary Matalin and James Carville agree. But among gays, dating across party lines isn’t unthinkable.
Washington is full of similar networks, whether they are based on alumni affiliation, religion, or policy issues such as telecom, health care and taxes. The Hill’s gay community functions much like those others, its members say, as a repository of everything from dentist recommendations to career advice. It’s nearly impossible to pin down a size of the community with gay staffers, lobbyists, and others claiming anywhere from “dozens” to “a few hundred” in their ranks.
And although lesbians are part of some of the more organized events, such as happy hours sponsored by the gay and lesbian staff association, they are less likely to be part of the social scene, several staffers say.
Given the abundance of social cliques in Washington, some gay staffers took offense at the “mafia” label that surfaced during the Foley scandal.
“It’s important to understand that a network of gay people is like any other network,” says Denis Dison, vice president for communications for the Victory Fund, an organization that supports gay candidates running for public office. Dison said the organization’s mission also extends to defending gay staffers, something it found itself doing during the height of the Foley scandal. Gay staffers, he says, “have something in common — it’s not anything underhanded.”
Others just laugh at the idea of a gay “mafia.” “If we really had that kind of organization,” one of the Democratic staffers said, “would we really have the kind of decisions being made, if we could vote people out and threaten people with horse heads in their beds?”
It’s too soon to tell whether the Foley scandal will have lasting effects on the Hill’s gay community. Some of that will depend on the outcome of this month’s elections, predicts one gay Republican who works for a political advocacy group. If independents abandon the Republican Party and Republicans move toward the center, “the Hill might become friendlier to gay staffers,” he said. If conservatives stay home, though, the Foley scandal and, by proxy, gay staffers may wind up as scapegoats. “You might see a blame game then,” he said.
Either way, after the ballots are counted, the members of Washington’s most bipartisan community will no doubt both celebrate and drown their sorrows the way they always have — together.