Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Senator Larry Craig: Caught Up In The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" World He Helped Create

Never have the differences between Democrats and Republicans in Washington in accepting or rejecting inappropriate behavior and a lack of ethics been so starkly apparent. Look at the recent Republican pressure to force hasty exits of Reps. Bob Livingston, Tom DeLay, Mark Foley and Sens. Trent Lott and Larry Craig. The latest pressure was a case of Republican homophobia and it involved Senator Larry Craig. Craig entered an airport restroom, fidgeted with his fingers while standing outside an occupied stall, peered through the crack in the door and after entering a stall (now a tourist attraction I'm sure) , he sat, tapped his foot and touched the occupant's shoe with his own. Finally, he swiped his hand under the stall divider three times, at which point the occupant revealed his police credentials. Ouch!

The lack of intelligence in our Congress started with Sen. Ted Kennedy taking 10 hours to report a drowning death. Cut to President Bill Clinton using his power to seduce an intern in the Oval Office, and paying several hundred thousand dollars to settle a sexual harassment suit! Or how about Rep. Barney Frank permitting his residence to be used for prostitution, or Rep. Gerry Studds homosexual affair with a page, or Rep. William Jefferson hiding $90,000 in his freezer. The lack of ethics in our government is truly apalling. Craig has filed papers to withdraw his guilty plea in an airport sex sting, arguing that he entered the plea under stress caused by media inquiries into his sexuality. According to Minnesota law, a guilty plea "may be withdrawn if it was not intelligently made" and what Sen. Craig did was by no means intelligent! Many Republicans have urged Craig to say for sure that he will resign. That would spare the party an ethics dilemma and the embarrassment of dealing with a colleague who had been stripped of his committee leadership posts.

Mr. Craig indeed went against much of what he had promoted if these allegations are true. Craig denies that he has done anything wrong and insists that he is not now and never has been gay. Homosexuality is not illegal and Craig thought that he could protect himself simply by claiming a heterosexual identity. Craig's case apparently was handled according to the book. But the use of everyday gestures that fall short of sex to mete out punishment for sexual misconduct illustrates a revealing departure from methods that investigators used to carry out sting operations nearly a century ago. Courts used to require a lot more than the tapping of a toe to sustain a conviction for a morals crime.

According to a Washington Post article by Aaron Belkin, in 1919 the Navy hired "decoys" to frequent the lobby of the YMCA in Newport, R.I. to eliminate gay men from the ranks. Following an introduction, decoys would accompany their suspects to a hotel room and then have sex. At least three dozen sailors and civilians were arrested, and many ended up in jail. According to conventions of the day, if men confined themselves to masculine behaviors and sex roles, they could engage in sex with other men (yes, that's right - other men!) without inviting accusations of being gay. Government decoys could have sex with gay men with impunity as long as they assumed the active position (say what?) during those encounters. Or so the Navy assumed.

When the 1919 sting operation ensnared a local minister, the Episcopal Church fought back, and the church persuaded the Navy and the Senate to investigate the sting operation, and when it became apparent that the military had enlisted heterosexuals to engage in sex with other men, there was a public outcry. That began the shift away from sting operations involving sex acts with government agents, and a recognition by military and other investigators that they would have to rely on evidence short of actual sexual conduct as the basis for convictions.

Craig joins the growing list of people who have been charged with morals crimes for innocuous behavior. While it may be that people who behave like good ol' Larry did are trolling for sex, there remains an important difference between seeking sex and having public sex. Society certainly has a right to uphold standards of public decorum, but criminalization of harmless behavior opens up a space for injustice to be unevenly applied. A federal judge observed in the 1948 case of a man who had been arrested for lewd and immoral behavior after inviting an undercover police officer up to his apartment for a drink, that "any citizen who answers a stranger's inquiry as to direction, or time, or a request for a dime or a match is liable to be threatened with an accusation of this sort."

How outrageous is that. The military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy allows military judges to treat hand-holding and other benign gestures as the legal equivalent of sex. Sen. Craig, who voted to enact "don't ask, don't tell" in 1993, got caught up in a system that looks a lot like the one he helped create, a system in which innocent gestures can invite punishment. It is a trap that none of us should ever have to fear!

And by the way, to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt of Larry's heterosexuality, Senator Larry Craig is a card carrying member of the National Rifle Association!