At the Republican National Convention in 2000, Rep. Mark Foley hosted a late-night bash at a Philadelphia gay bar, where an acquaintance snapped a photo of an attractive young intern sitting on the Florida congressman’s lap.
Months later, according to the acquaintance, when she offered to send him the photo, Foley looked anxious.
The intern, “male or female?” he inquired.
“Female” was the reply.
“Oh, thank God,” Foley responded. “Send me that photo, I might need it someday.”
For most Republicans, being photographed in a compromising position with a young woman could be scandalous. But in the sometimes strained world of gay Republicans, it was an asset.
Foley resigned a week ago over revelations that he had engaged in sexually explicit online banter with male teenagers. And though it was the age of those House pages that forced his downfall and a criminal investigation, Foley’s sexual orientation had been a huge political liability for him for years.
Gays hold many prominent positions in government and business in Washington. But in the GOP ranks, homosexuality is still politically risky. In fact, with the exception of the military, perhaps no institution in America has as strong a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach as the Republican Party.
“Obviously, the far right has kind of got a stranglehold on the Republican Party,” said Minnesota state Rep. Paul Koering, a Republican who came out publicly last year. “The very first time I ran, I literally almost made myself sick worrying about somebody finding out I was gay.”
Congress has three openly gay members, one of them a Republican -- Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who is retiring when this term ends. Kolbe acknowledged his sexual orientation in 1996 after a gay magazine was about to “out” him for voting against government recognition of same-sex marriages.
Staffers from both parties say they think that several other Republican members of Congress are gay but, at least officially, in the closet.
“It’s kind of like a secret society,” said a gay former congressional staffer who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
One reason for the secrecy, gay Republicans say, is that their party has grown more hostile to gays in recent years. The trend began with the 2002 congressional election, when GOP leaders made the strategic decision to use religious conservative groups’ opposition to gay marriage to turn out voters. For those groups, which consider homosexuality a deviant “lifestyle,” few issues rile their membership more.
“While pro-homosexual activists like to claim that pedophilia is a completely distinct orientation from homosexuality, evidence shows a disproportionate overlap between the two,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said this week in a message to supporters.
David Catania, who serves on the District of Columbia city council and is gay, said he left the Republican Party over its opposition to gay marriage. He expressed sympathy for his gay friends who remained active Republicans.
“They’ve hitched their stars to the party, hoping to hunker down and ride out the Taliban-esque wing, hoping their views will come back into the mainstream,” Catania said. “It’s got to be very demoralizing for them.”
A gay Democratic staffer said gay Republican friends tended to walk a narrow line.
“It’s difficult for them,” the staffer said. “For the most part, they grew up in Republican households and families. It’s like a religion to them. They may even be out to their families. But they are not out professionally.”
Early in Foley’s congressional career, friends and associates say, he took measures to deflect attention from his sexual orientation. He showed up at parties with a woman on his arm, made references to girlfriends, and used photos of himself with his sister and niece in campaign literature. Many voters assumed the photo showed him with a wife and daughter.
In Florida, Foley had a host of glamorous and wealthy female companions, including Petra Levin, a former model and philanthropist, and Nancy Jean Davis, the Miami heir to the McArthur Dairy fortune.
“He always had a knockout woman on his arm,” said Jack Furnari, president of the Boca Raton Republican Club. “People would say, ‘See that woman Mark was with?’ and chuckle. It was all a show.”
At times and in certain circles, however, Foley was less reticent about being seen with his longtime male partner, friends and associates say. In Palm Beach, the luxury winter resort island that some describe as fiscally conservative but socially liberal, Foley would arrive at fundraisers and galas with his companion, a local dermatologist. But they always sat at separate tables.
Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Republican Party of Palm Beach County, who says he saw Foley a month ago at a restaurant with Foley’s companion as well as his sister and her husband, said the congressman’s sexuality was not an issue in Palm Beach.
“Nobody cared,” Dinerstein said. “Liberals think all Republicans are stupid bigots, but we knew. It just wasn’t talked about. We cared about his political skills, his legislative skills.”
Rand Hoch, former chairman of the Democratic Party of Palm Beach County and openly gay, remembers speaking at length with Foley in 1997, when some gay newspapers were outing public officials.
“I tried and tried to persuade him to come out,” Hoch said. “But ultimately he thought that at that time in Washington, D.C., and nationally, an up-and-coming Republican politician could not be openly gay.”
Foley was a tireless socializer, a trait that served him well politically. He won plaudits from charities for his willingness to help raise money, and he earned the loyalty of fellow Republicans in Washington and Florida for his ability to shake donor trees in Hollywood and elsewhere.
In the House’s tightknit Republican caucus, he rose to the rank of deputy whip, a junior member of the leadership. In 2003, Foley was considered the GOP front-runner to succeed then-Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who had decided to run for president.
Though Foley had a campaign fund worth millions, the White House moved aggressively to recruit a different candidate, then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez. Party strategists worried about what a Foley candidacy would mean for President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign in the state that had decided the election four years earlier.
Foley eventually dropped out of the race, citing his father’s bout with cancer. Few doubted the real reason was that his sexual orientation might become an issue. (Martinez won.)
Foley, it seemed, had gone as far in politics as he could as a gay Republican. And in a way, acquaintances said, the failure of his Senate bid appears to have freed him to be somewhat more open about his homosexuality. For instance, he began appearing more often at social events with his partner; if you invited one to dinner, socialites learned, you invited both.
For gay Republicans, staffers say, discretion is the key. And Foley, it seems, had trouble being discreet.
In Washington, he was known as someone who liked to stay out late. And at parties, he did not hide his interest in young men.
Friends and colleagues urged Foley to take steps to avoid scrutiny. He resigned his membership at a popular gay gym on the advice of his former longtime political advisor and chief of staff Kirk Fordham, according to one former Capitol Hill staffer.
Fordham also was known to follow Foley to parties, in some cases intervening to stop the congressman from inviting partygoers back to his apartment.
“Kirk told him to knock it off,” said the former staffer, who is a Democrat.
In recent days, gay political staffers and activists have expressed anger with Foley.
“Thanks a lot, Mark,” said Catania, the District of Columbia councilman. “You weren’t any help to us when you were in the closet, and you’ve really hurt us now.
“It leaves the impression that we’re all predators.”
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of the two openly gay Democratic members of Congress, expressed concern this week that the Foley scandal could lead to a “real purge of gays in the Republican Party.”
“Republicans,” Frank said in an interview posted on TheAdvocate.com, the website of the Boston-based gay newspaper, “will now be more nervous having gay people in positions of power.”
Reynolds reported from Washington and Jarvie from West Palm Beach, Fla. Times staff writers Richard Simon, Nicole Gaouette, Johanna Neuman, Janet Hook, Peter Wallsten and Noam N. Levey contributed to this report.