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The Dying Political Tradition Of Avoiding The Gay Question

Was Ed Koch the last one to get away with it? If there's nothing wrong with being gay, why can't we ask it?

Posted on February 1, 2013, at 5:06 p.m. ET

John Gara

NEW YORK CITY — The late New York Mayor Ed Koch, who died Friday, never answered one way or the other the question of whether he was gay, though he'd cheerfully berate reporters for asking it.

But Koch may be the last public figure to have succeeded in such evasions. Two factors — changing attitudes toward LGBT people and a shrinking zone of privacy — are making answers like his harder and harder to manage for public figures. And Koch himself was increasingly asked the questions directly, and in mainstream forums.

Just last month, the The New York Times' Gina Bellafante took a look at the issue under the headline: "Judging Mayor Koch's AIDS Record, Whispers Aside."

Bellafante writes of a new documentary on the former mayor that Koch "is asked to address questions surrounding the longstanding interest in his sexuality. He responds as he has done for a long time now, declaring that it is no one's business. He argues that his engagement with the issue would set a precedent for gross intrusions into the personal lives of political candidates, a bit of narcissistic posturing that seems to ignore the extent to which that field has already been trampled by mad dogs and wild horses."

But while Koch died without answering the question — though others claim to have the answer themselves — the space in which a politician can refuse to "dignify" such questions has narrowed dramatically. In a world where being gay isn't a bad thing, though, it's hard to say that gay questions are undignified.

And yet, within the small-"c" conservative world of politics, many '80s-era responses remain.

This week alone, speculation about the sexual orientation of three single, male politicians — Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Aaron Schock and Newark Mayor Cory Booker — was rampant online. And, despite advancements on LGBT issues, two of the three have, at one point or another, used the same old "beneath my dignity to respond" response. All three, moreover, have said at some point that they are not gay. And yet, questions remain.

In the case of Booker, about whom BuzzFeed's Ruby Cramer published an extensive profile Monday, Cramer wrote that "rumors about Booker's personal life" — including claims that he is gay — "have followed his career for more than a decade now."

Then, "When asked about the mayor's sexuality, a spokesman said he 'would not comment on such matters.' Booker, of course, talks openly about dating women."

On Tuesday, when President Obama announced his aims for immigration reform — and included same-sex couples in those plans — Graham was not happy. AmericaBlog's John Aravosis was not subtle in his response, headlining his coverage, "Lindsey Graham (R-Closet) having vapors over including gays in immigration bill."

In a 2010 interview with The New York Times' Robert Draper, Graham addressed the rumors with a head-on, if quite detailed, denial. "Like maybe I'm having a clandestine affair with Ricky Martin. I know it's really gonna upset a lot of gay men — I'm sure hundreds of 'em are gonna be jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge — but I ain't available. I ain't gay. Sorry." The response did not, however, stop the speculation.

Then, on Thursday, Schock delivered a confusing answer about his opposition to same-sex couples' marriage rights — sparking a new round of speculation about his sexual orientation. In September 2012, though, he told The Huffington Post's Michelangelo Signorile that "questions about his sexual orientation ... are 'inappropriate and ridiculous' and not 'worthy of further response.' He also stated, 'I've said that before,' when asked if he is confirming that he is not gay, and added, 'You can look it up.'"

This "refer to my earlier response" has been Schock's go-to answer for questions since joining Congress. A 2010 New York Times report noted that Schock "has told reporters that he is not gay."

Koch's death marks the end of an era, but Americans' interest in the personal lives of their elected officials is unlikely to change. What is changing is that the question about sexual orientation is, more and more, no different than any other question.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.