A promising politician from a mid-Atlantic state remains unmarried. At some point in his career, rumors begin to fly. Rivals question his masculinity, his mannerisms, his predilections. Why are you a bachelor? Why no wife?
The politician, in this case, was James Buchanan; the time was the mid-1800s. But some things never change. In a profile published August 26 in The Washington Post, Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker—early 40s, unmarried, and running for New Jersey’s vacant Senate seat—was asked to address the Buchananesque gossip about his own sexuality. “People who think I’m gay, some part of me thinks it’s wonderful,” he said. “Because I want to challenge people on their homophobia. I love seeing on Twitter when someone says I’m gay, and I say, ‘So what does it matter if I am? So be it. I hope you are not voting for me because you are making the presumption that I’m straight.’ ”
Booker’s response sparked the predictable news cycle of speculation: Is he? Isn’t he? Why won’t he say? Just as predictably, his Republican opponent, Tea Party activist Steve Lonegan, pounced, calling Booker’s remarks “ambiguous” and “kind of weird” and regaling reporters with a tale “about how [Booker] likes to go out at 3 o’clock in the morning for a manicure and a pedicure.” “Maybe that helps to get him the gay vote,” Lonegan added. “It was described as his peculiar fetish. I have a more peculiar fetish. I like a good Scotch and a cigar.”
Lonegan is a dunce—on that, at least, all sane Americans can agree. But what to make of Booker’s coyness? (“I don’t intend to answer,” the mayor told a Newark Star-Ledger writer when he tried to follow up. “It should not matter. That was my point.”) Is he being hypocritical, as Gawker alleges—“present[ing] himself as the most open, accessible mayor in America, and an ally of gay rights, yet repeatedly danc[ing] around the question of his own sexuality”? Or is he being brave and progressive by letting the rumors linger, even if they hurt him politically?
Over the years, Booker has repeatedly referred to the “women” or “ladies” he has dated—“How unfair is it to a young lady to put them in the spotlight if they haven’t signed up for that yet?” he told the Post—so one is inclined to think his verbal ambiguity on the subject is a statement of solidarity rather than an attempt to mask his sexuality. But if Booker hopes to become president someday, his real challenge may not have much to do with sexual orientation at all. Americans are increasingly tolerant, yet they still like to elect people, straight or gay, who are family men and family women. And they care—and expect to know—a lot more about their representatives’ family lives than they used to. It’s not hard to imagine that, before long, national politicians who’ve never wed will be a rarer species than national politicians who are openly gay.
In other words, Booker probably can’t count on pulling a Buchanan, whatever his sexual orientation. In 1856 the former Pennsylvania senator—likely a closeted gay man—was elected president even though he was single. Some things never change. Others do.