Dorian recently had a smart opinion piece on former-New-Jersey-governor James McGreevey. It got me to thinking more about the media’s coverage of McGreevey and its potential meaning for queers in the U.S.
For those just recently returning from Iraq, you might have missed the McGreevey story. On August 12, 2004, McGreevey announced that he was a “gay American” and promptly resigned as governor. It later turned out that McGreevey had put his alleged lover on the state payroll (alleged because that man claims that McGreevey sexually harassed him and that they did not have a consensual relationship).
Now, two years later, McGreevey emerges a-la Mary Cheney to peddle a tell-all autobiography. He has been interviewed by virtually every news organization or television syndicate in the U.S.., including her royal highness herself, Oprah Winfrey.
I have not read his book. Nor am I particularly interested in his personal narrative. If the stories about him having sex with some guy while his wife labored in a hospital delivering their child are true, then McGreevey showed himself to be a first-class slime ball regardless of his sexuality. No extenuating circumstances could explain that to me. Sorry.
Still, it’s not the actual McGreevey, as a real individual, who interests me. Rather, the media’s obsession about McGreevey makes me leery.
Obviously the media loves a good sex scandal. How many more blow-job jokes can possibly be written about Bill Clinton? You would think that Monica was the first person on earth to think of putting a penis in her mouth.
The McGreevey coverage, however, goes beyond just another political sex scandal. In this instance, I think the media’s obsession with McGreevey reenforces problematic assumptions about queer men.
The media wants us to think that they are presenting McGreevey’s story as a liberal, cautionary tale about the dangers of the closet. “Look how the closet totally fucked up this man, his wife, and his daughter,” the media not-so-subtly commands us, “Isn’t homophobia just terrible?” This type of moralistic message thereby justifies all of the lurid content and confessionals that McGreevey happily offers up about his late-night encounters.
I can only go with the media so far in their reasoning. Yes, homophobia and the “closet” had a profoundly destructive impact on this man, his psyche, and those around him. Yet, it was not the closet, but rather his own cowardice and selfishness that prompted him to stay in that closet even as he wrapped his tongue around the closest available penis that he could find. If he had the personal strength to override the many, many, many objections he heard about putting his totally unqualified man in a key state position, he should have had the balls to be up-front with his wife and daughter.
McGreevey’s image in the media reenforces a long-established stereotype that queer men are psychologically dysfunctional and a potential threat to straight women, if not the safety of the entire nation. Rather than allowing the possibility to think about same-sex sex as a pleasure-based good on its own, the focus on McGreevey keeps up the notion that same-sex sex is ruthless, anonymous, and self-centered. One AP article highlighted that McGreevey “discussed back-alley trysts behind a Washington, D.C. synagogue and anonymous sexual contacts with scores of men in bookstores and rest stops.” The media is more than happy to grab his lurid confessions as long as they can frame it with a message of “Shucks, alley-way sex sure is wrong.” Indeed, the media often conflates his betrayal of his wife with gay sex. These, though, are two different entities.
McGreevey’s own words still imply a divide between being “good” and enjoying same-sex sex. The disgraced governor more than once has called his past “messy, shameful, sinful." McGreevey disparaged his sexual encounters, stating, “That's not where you find love, in the back of a booth. That's where you fulfill a physical need. But that's not being godly, that's not finding love." Let me see if I get this subtext right: Sex in a bedroom with candles and soft music? Godly. Sex on a pool-table with leather chaps? Ungodly. Got it.
Same-sex sex, under this thinking, becomes less legitimate than other forms of sexual expression. The media equates same-sex sex with being “uncontrollable” and something that is “taken” by any means necessary.
McGreevey told Oprah, "I was trying to be the best little boy; I was trying to do what was right." According to his logic, the “best little boy” orally servicing an aircraft carrier’s worth of sailors could not possibly be “right,” but only sinful. I, on the other hand, beg to differ. What could be wrong with something so, so right?
Compare McGreevey’s media attention verses another quasi-celebrity who just came out of the closet. CNN”s Thomas Roberts announced his own love of the hot man flesh last week. The media, however, just wasn’t as interested in Roberts. His outing, apparently, came without stories of sex romps in dumpsters. It did, however, accompany his unemployment.
Roberts’ sexuality did not apparently create the massive trauma that McGreevey’s did. He lived a pretty okay gay life. He had several relationships and seems, at least marginally well adjusted. That, apparently, is not the discussion of same-sex sexuality that captures media attention.
The media is also not interested in images of gay men who have been out for decades. Where’s the story in that?
Of course, the media doesn't just end with all that tearoom sex. McGreevey’s redemption, the media claims, came in the form of his newly found devotion to god and a (supposedly) monogamous relationship with an Australian-born financier. The media's version of McGreevey's narrative denigrates anonymous sexual encounters, but valorizes monogamous relationships. In so doing, it presumes that there can only be one appropriate form of sexual expression and that it has to be as close to traditional heterosexual, monogamous, marriage as possible.
The media has also seized on McGreevey’s use of religious language and imagery. Using an evangelical style conversion-type narrative, McGreevey explains “"What I didn't understand was that being gay, as with everything else, is a grace from God, and that by accepting that grace and by accepting that reality, by embracing that truth, I could authentically be who I was.” It seems to me that not too long ago exchanging the public payroll for ass-rides was authentically you.
McGreevey’s dominance in the media continues to place boundaries on sexual expression. Though it makes some nods to the problems of “being in the closet,” it also serves as a warning about veering too far away from a particular model of sexual expression.
Don’t misunderstand GayProf. I am not saying that all gay men need to be out having lots of tearoom sex to be sexually free nor am I condemning monogamous queer relationships as knock-offs of hetero relationships. Indeed, I have just as little patience for gay men who toss up a smoke screen of queer theory to disparage queers who opt for monogamous relationships (and I often find that these same folk have a pretty flaccid grip on queer theory). Assuming that what works for you should also be what works for everybody is dangerous. It only reenforces the status quo regardless of how revolutionary you think that your personal sexual habits are.
What I am saying is that there is nothing intrinsically better or worse about either tearoom sex or monogamous sex. Somebody is not a better human or more clever for engaging in either (or neither). Likewise, lying to a person who loves and trusts you so that you can have tearoom sex is not the same as enjoying tearoom sex.
I suggest that any attempts to restrict the erotic expression of consenting adults affects the ways that we all relate to our bodies and our sexuality. We must be willing to embrace the transgression of traditional boundaries if we are committed to obtaining a new level of sexual freedom for all. Moreover, we have to be willing to interrogate and explore all the representations of queer sexuality as they appear everywhere. Just because McGreevey happens to be a queer man does not mean that we can’t be critical of the ways that he has been used by the media.