Eli Sanders

[Originally published in The Stranger, July 28, 2005]
We Asked, He Told
On the Trail of Washington's Supposedly Closeted State Senator
A FEW MONTHS ago Ken Jacobsen, the Democratic state senator from North Seattle, found himself in an ethical quandary. So he did what any good New York Times–reading liberal might do: He wrote a letter to the newspaper's popular advice column, The Ethicist.

Jacobsen wanted guidance from the Times on the politically explosive practice of "outing"—that is, exposing closeted gay politicians. His political colleagues, he wrote, were talking of "outing legislators who oppose gay rights but are rumored to be gay." He wanted to know: "What are the ethics in this case?" Although Jacobsen didn't name names in his letter, he told me later that he and his colleagues did have one particular legislator in mind: Luke Esser, the charming, unmarried Republican senator from the Eastside.

Ever since the bitter, one-vote defeat of a statewide gay rights bill last year, there has been increasing chatter in liberal political circles about outing Esser, who for years has been rumored to be gay. Esser led the senate-floor fight against the gay rights bill, and he has also been a fervent opponent of gay marriage, actions that had many gossip-peddlers in Olympia fuming about alleged hypocrisy. But no one—not the people who were peddling the gossip, and not the numerous journalists who listened with interest—had taken the rather obvious next step of asking Esser a simple question: Are you gay?

Because of this, Esser's sexuality remained a rumor-fueled mystery, one that got no closer to being solved when, in the July 17 New York Times, The Ethicist responded to Jacobsen's letter by endorsing the practice of outing—provided the politician in question is actually, provably, gay.

As it turns out, what had passed as proof for years was just a handful of impressions and rumors that had been repeated so often they had taken on the aura of actuality. I know this because in the days after The Ethicist gave the green light, I tried to out Esser. I talked to what felt like everyone in Olympia's liberal gossip mill, and came up with nothing except a bunch of off-the-record accounts of vaguely homo-suspicious behavior. I can't repeat the accounts because they were all off the record, but none of them was more convincing than being told that someone must be gay because, say, he was once spotted sharing a Details magazine with a well-dressed male friend.

When the rumors didn't lead anywhere, I thought, Why not give Esser a call?

* * *

Standing between me and the phone was Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, who, on the day after The Ethicist weighed in, published a column of his own urging people not to pry into the sex lives of legislators, lest we all descend "into the swamp of personal attack politics."

It is often said that The Stranger is staffed solely with unethical homosexuals and their enablers, but in this case, at least for a few days, we tried hard to behave like thoughtful journalists. Before I picked up the phone to call Esser, my colleagues and I had already gone many rounds over whether or not to try to out the senator and had finally concluded that yes, we should.

Our thinking went like this: A closeted Republican senator who voted against last year's gay rights bill would be a hypocrite worth exposing. The gay rights bill, which has been proposed and defeated for almost 20 years running, was designed to protect this state's gay citizens from being fired from a job or evicted from an apartment simply because of their sexual orientation. There are different levels of hypocrisy, but by voting to deny protections to a stigmatized class of people that includes himself, the senator would have been engaging in a level of hypocrisy that justifies public examination. He would, shamefully, have been opposing protections whose need he proved every day that he remained closeted at work.

As for Westneat's arguments against politicizing people's private lives, we decided they wouldn't hold in this case. The Republican leadership in Olympia enforces a lock-step loyalty in voting against gay rights, and at the national level, prominent Republicans, including President Bush, have gleefully used campaigns based on opposition to gay rights and thinly veiled homophobia. By making theirs the de facto party of anti-gay bigots in order to win elections, Republicans have already politicized the private sexual conduct of a sizable minority of Americans. Pointing out that a Republican is a member of that minority is merely playing by Republicans' rules.

I picked up the phone.

* * *

Esser didn't flinch when I asked him about his sexuality. He didn't sound uncomfortable, didn't say the word "gay" like it was something sour in his mouth. Instead he sounded like a lot of modern men who sometimes get mistaken for gay and don't take umbrage, but also don't like to leave anyone with a mistaken impression.

"Are you gay?" I asked.

"I am not," Esser replied, saying he is straight.

It was exactly the conversation I've had with a number of guys over the years. It felt thoroughly civilized and thoroughly necessary in dealing with a common human difference that is important, but often invisible.

Now that Esser had a chance to speak about the rumors, he slammed them as being "all about politics and partisanship and trying to get more Democrats in the state legislature.... If it takes a smear campaign that's not based in truth to do it, there are some who will stoop that low."

* * *

Next I picked up the phone and dialed the Ethicist, Randy Cohen, looking for closure. Cohen described the spreading of unsubstantiated gossip as "a little dubious," but agreed that local journalists were silly for having held back from asking Esser about the rumors that he is gay. Inquiring about a person's sexuality, Cohen said, is "ethically neutral" because whether the person answers "straight" or "gay" the revelation itself is not disgraceful. Like a lot of things, what matters is the intent of the inquirer. Reporters should generally refrain from asking about a politician's sexuality "unless it is relevant to a policy matter"—as it clearly was in this case.

The generous explanation for why reporters here didn't ask is that a sense of propriety stopped them. A less generous explanation might be that a subtle form of homophobia was at work, one that made reporters think asking might lead to a "shameful" revelation. Either way, this reluctance to ask has twice caused a problem to drag on too long. First it was Jim West, who was never asked about the "open secret" that he was gay while he was busy voting against gay rights in Olympia. And now it's Esser, the rumors about whom could have been debunked long ago with one phone call.