I’m not sure where or when I got the idea, but at some point in my childhood I asked my mother what "homosexuality" meant. "Well, honey," she said, pausing, "that’s something sailors do."

"Like Daddy?" I asked. My father had been in the Pacific in World War II, and his sailor hats and dress uniforms, pressed and hanging in an attic chest, held for me the greatest fascination.

"No, no," she quickly clarified. "Sailors who make a living of it," or words to that effect. Later I learned that "venereal disease" too was "something sailors get": again, "not Daddy"; those others, who spend endless stretches at sea, a lifetime of manly togetherness punctuated by ribald Crossing the Line ceremonies and visits to raffish ports of call. For the longest time I had no idea what maritime life involved but that it was wrapped in sex and secrets.

Eric Massa, 50, was a Navy man for twenty-four years. A Catholic, like me, growing up at the same time as me, when the church didn’t speak to its children of sex, let alone homosex, he followed in the footsteps of his daddy, also career Navy, and married like his daddy, had children like his daddy. On those long stints at sea he’d grasp the tired flesh of fellow sailors, offering "the Massa massage." If former shipmates are to be believed, he once rousted a sleeping junior officer by pawing the man’s privates. He climbed up into the bunk of another sleeping mate and tried to "snorkel him," meaning he either smothered the fellow with cock and balls or wanted to blow him, possibly both. Massa was drunk, naturally, and nobody reported a thing.

The ex-shipmates who are talking now claim they feared retaliation then, and maybe that’s true, but a cousin of mine who spent years in the Navy and Marines once remarked that it was common as rain to discover guys on ships canoodling in closets. Maybe it all just didn’t seem so big a deal until Massa, now former Congressman Massa, went on TV to say that while in hindsight inappropriate, there was nothing at all sexual about his groping, wrestling, tickling, tussling and salty-talking with his young male Congressional staffers, with whom he also roomed. Certainly nothing gay. "Why don’t you ask my wife, ask my friends, ask the 10,000 sailors I served with in the Navy?" he shot back at Larry King. It was the shot too far.

To those who may have missed this version of March Madness, Massa is the center of Washington’s latest sex scandal. Retired military and a lifetime Republican who quit the party over the Iraq War, he fit the Democrats’ ideal candidate profile and in 2008 won a traditionally Republican seat in upstate New York. Republicans began plotting almost immediately to oust him, but Democrats weren’t happy with Massa, either. He supported some of the president’s priorities but blasted others, regarded Rahm Emanuel as the "son of the devil’s spawn" but was surprised that any of that should bother anyone. In February one of his male staff complained of sexual harassment. There had been a wedding, Massa had danced with a bridesmaid, and afterward, boys being boys, the staffer suggested what Massa could do with the woman. "What I really ought to be doing is fracking you," Massa retorted, ruffling the young man’s hair and laughing. Massa was drunk. Of course he was.

On March 3 the Congressman said he was just "a salty old sailor" and announced his resignation. Then he went on radio to say that the Democrats had it in for him, particularly Emanuel, who once poked Massa in the chest and yelled at him for not being a team player while they were both naked in the Congressional showers. Enter Glenn Beck, who latched on to the story, not to explore its most intriguing detail–those curtainless shower stalls and the dick-swinging games of powerful men–but to demonstrate how "the Democratic Party is out to destroy this man…the future of this country is at stake!" Massa was bound to disappoint. Nobody had forced him out, he said, before rambling on about the price of independence, the daily hours spent begging for cash, his broken spirits, our broken system, his bout with cancer and, yes, a groping or tickle fight with staff on his fiftieth birthday. At one point Massa flipped open a scrapbook, pointing to pictures of a 1983 shipboard ceremony upon crossing the international dateline and telling his flummoxed host, "If you were to take this out of context today–can you imagine transporting back to this today? It looks like an orgy in Caligula."

As with men’s magazines of the 1950s, some see only the bodybuilder, others the object of desire, others a mix of both. Who can say what Massa sees in his mementos and male staff? It’s almost always the case with sex scandals, though, that beyond the rococo, there’s a harsher, unspoken reality, a trap so deeply commonplace that nobody calls it scandal. Here call it private life or roughhousing among men; call it a "relapse" into youthful experimentation or just the things guys do together after drinking a six-pack or several gin and tonics. Call it anything but the closet, because if it’s that then it’s sexual, and if it’s sexual then you’re queer, and if you’re queer you might be toast–still, today, in 2010, let alone when people of Massa’s generation were at the door of sexual awakening.

While the bottom was dropping out for Massa, 3,000 miles away California State Senator Roy Ashburn was being arrested for drunk driving, having been stopped by the Highway Patrol on his way back from a gay club with another man. A few days later Massa told Larry King it was an insult to gays to suggest that he or anyone in this day and age might be in the closet, Ashburn, 55, a divorced father of four and a reliably antigay Republican pol for fourteen years, went on the radio and uttered "the words that have been so difficult for me for so long": "I am gay."

It’s easy to get moralistic about Ashburn, and many bloggers have, but oppression is not the mask’s companion only in sympathetic cases, those anonymous ones where people carry secrets and have no staffs, no profile, no power except to hurt themselves and maybe the people they lie to. The Virginia merchant spending hours in the basement feverishly texting a paramour–the first he has allowed himself in forty-five years of living–while upstairs his wife plans the family vacation. The big old queen in Indiana recently married to a woman he loves–she saved his life, he says–but spending every waking hour in a gay cafe that isn’t really gay because no one says the word except in whispers. The queer husbands in Vermont who somehow can’t come out, or need the wife, need the marriage and the kids, but also need to tell, so form a small, sad brotherhood of support.

That’s speaking only of men, a handful I know or know of, but everywhere there are queer men and women who don’t fit the now-mainstream image of pretty young things forming the Gay-Straight Alliance at school, competing on reality shows, making it on the Human Rights Campaign’s literature for marriage or military service. Often they live in small towns in rural areas, places like Corning, New York, where Massa resides, or Bakersfield, California, which Ashburn represented. It shouldn’t take petty scandals to remind us that for millions the fundamental question of life isn’t whether they can legally kill someone in a war or cut the wedding cake but whether it’s going to take all their courage just to get up every morning and be who they are.

As the Massa flap was wearing itself out, I was in Columbia, South Carolina, at a screening of a new documentary called Out in the Silence. It’s about a teenage boy in Oil City, Pennsylvania, who comes out almost by accident, to defend another kid, and discovers high school is a living hell. It has a happy ending, of sorts: the kid doesn’t kill himself; his mother fights for him; he’s driven from school but gets a $4,000 settlement for the loss of his education; there’s a small queer community that’s now pushing an anti-discrimination ordinance in town. The theater was jammed, a scenario that greeted the filmmakers, Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer, earlier in Charleston and Spartanburg and almost every small city and town where they’ve taken the film. The screenings become forums, places to meet where there has been no place, to talk where there is a desire to talk but little occasion.

"For the longest time, the gay movement told people in rural areas, Just move to the city and come out," Joe said afterward. He was raised in Oil City, and one sister still won’t talk to him. "That’s not an answer if you’re connected to your family, your job, your town. And you can’t expect oppressed individuals to take the whole burden of coming out on themselves." The closet is still a product of culture; its persistence the blackmail note waiting to be written for any sexual outlaw, along the arc of the Kinsey scale, even salty old sailors who just want some fun with the boys.

 

I’m not sure where or when I got the idea, but at some point in my childhood I asked my mother what "homosexuality" meant. "Well, honey," she said, pausing, "that’s something sailors do."

"Like Daddy?" I asked. My father had been in the Pacific in World War II, and his sailor hats and dress uniforms, pressed and hanging in an attic chest, held for me the greatest fascination.

"No, no," she quickly clarified. "Sailors who make a living of it," or words to that effect. Later I learned that "venereal disease" too was "something sailors get": again, "not Daddy"; those others, who spend endless stretches at sea, a lifetime of manly togetherness punctuated by ribald Crossing the Line ceremonies and visits to raffish ports of call. For the longest time I had no idea what maritime life involved but that it was wrapped in sex and secrets.

Eric Massa, 50, was a Navy man for twenty-four years. A Catholic, like me, growing up at the same time as me, when the church didn’t speak to its children of sex, let alone homosex, he followed in the footsteps of his daddy, also career Navy, and married like his daddy, had children like his daddy. On those long stints at sea he’d grasp the tired flesh of fellow sailors, offering "the Massa massage." If former shipmates are to be believed, he once rousted a sleeping junior officer by pawing the man’s privates. He climbed up into the bunk of another sleeping mate and tried to "snorkel him," meaning he either smothered the fellow with cock and balls or wanted to blow him, possibly both. Massa was drunk, naturally, and nobody reported a thing.

The ex-shipmates who are talking now claim they feared retaliation then, and maybe that’s true, but a cousin of mine who spent years in the Navy and Marines once remarked that it was common as rain to discover guys on ships canoodling in closets. Maybe it all just didn’t seem so big a deal until Massa, now former Congressman Massa, went on TV to say that while in hindsight inappropriate, there was nothing at all sexual about his groping, wrestling, tickling, tussling and salty-talking with his young male Congressional staffers, with whom he also roomed. Certainly nothing gay. "Why don’t you ask my wife, ask my friends, ask the 10,000 sailors I served with in the Navy?" he shot back at Larry King. It was the shot too far.

To those who may have missed this version of March Madness, Massa is the center of Washington’s latest sex scandal. Retired military and a lifetime Republican who quit the party over the Iraq War, he fit the Democrats’ ideal candidate profile and in 2008 won a traditionally Republican seat in upstate New York. Republicans began plotting almost immediately to oust him, but Democrats weren’t happy with Massa, either. He supported some of the president’s priorities but blasted others, regarded Rahm Emanuel as the "son of the devil’s spawn" but was surprised that any of that should bother anyone. In February one of his male staff complained of sexual harassment. There had been a wedding, Massa had danced with a bridesmaid, and afterward, boys being boys, the staffer suggested what Massa could do with the woman. "What I really ought to be doing is fracking you," Massa retorted, ruffling the young man’s hair and laughing. Massa was drunk. Of course he was.

On March 3 the Congressman said he was just "a salty old sailor" and announced his resignation. Then he went on radio to say that the Democrats had it in for him, particularly Emanuel, who once poked Massa in the chest and yelled at him for not being a team player while they were both naked in the Congressional showers. Enter Glenn Beck, who latched on to the story, not to explore its most intriguing detail–those curtainless shower stalls and the dick-swinging games of powerful men–but to demonstrate how "the Democratic Party is out to destroy this man…the future of this country is at stake!" Massa was bound to disappoint. Nobody had forced him out, he said, before rambling on about the price of independence, the daily hours spent begging for cash, his broken spirits, our broken system, his bout with cancer and, yes, a groping or tickle fight with staff on his fiftieth birthday. At one point Massa flipped open a scrapbook, pointing to pictures of a 1983 shipboard ceremony upon crossing the international dateline and telling his flummoxed host, "If you were to take this out of context today–can you imagine transporting back to this today? It looks like an orgy in Caligula."

As with men’s magazines of the 1950s, some see only the bodybuilder, others the object of desire, others a mix of both. Who can say what Massa sees in his mementos and male staff? It’s almost always the case with sex scandals, though, that beyond the rococo, there’s a harsher, unspoken reality, a trap so deeply commonplace that nobody calls it scandal. Here call it private life or roughhousing among men; call it a "relapse" into youthful experimentation or just the things guys do together after drinking a six-pack or several gin and tonics. Call it anything but the closet, because if it’s that then it’s sexual, and if it’s sexual then you’re queer, and if you’re queer you might be toast–still, today, in 2010, let alone when people of Massa’s generation were at the door of sexual awakening.

While the bottom was dropping out for Massa, 3,000 miles away California State Senator Roy Ashburn was being arrested for drunk driving, having been stopped by the Highway Patrol on his way back from a gay club with another man. A few days later Massa told Larry King it was an insult to gays to suggest that he or anyone in this day and age might be in the closet, Ashburn, 55, a divorced father of four and a reliably antigay Republican pol for fourteen years, went on the radio and uttered "the words that have been so difficult for me for so long": "I am gay."

It’s easy to get moralistic about Ashburn, and many bloggers have, but oppression is not the mask’s companion only in sympathetic cases, those anonymous ones where people carry secrets and have no staffs, no profile, no power except to hurt themselves and maybe the people they lie to. The Virginia merchant spending hours in the basement feverishly texting a paramour–the first he has allowed himself in forty-five years of living–while upstairs his wife plans the family vacation. The big old queen in Indiana recently married to a woman he loves–she saved his life, he says–but spending every waking hour in a gay cafe that isn’t really gay because no one says the word except in whispers. The queer husbands in Vermont who somehow can’t come out, or need the wife, need the marriage and the kids, but also need to tell, so form a small, sad brotherhood of support.

That’s speaking only of men, a handful I know or know of, but everywhere there are queer men and women who don’t fit the now-mainstream image of pretty young things forming the Gay-Straight Alliance at school, competing on reality shows, making it on the Human Rights Campaign’s literature for marriage or military service. Often they live in small towns in rural areas, places like Corning, New York, where Massa resides, or Bakersfield, California, which Ashburn represented. It shouldn’t take petty scandals to remind us that for millions the fundamental question of life isn’t whether they can legally kill someone in a war or cut the wedding cake but whether it’s going to take all their courage just to get up every morning and be who they are.

As the Massa flap was wearing itself out, I was in Columbia, South Carolina, at a screening of a new documentary called Out in the Silence. It’s about a teenage boy in Oil City, Pennsylvania, who comes out almost by accident, to defend another kid, and discovers high school is a living hell. It has a happy ending, of sorts: the kid doesn’t kill himself; his mother fights for him; he’s driven from school but gets a $4,000 settlement for the loss of his education; there’s a small queer community that’s now pushing an anti-discrimination ordinance in town. The theater was jammed, a scenario that greeted the filmmakers, Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer, earlier in Charleston and Spartanburg and almost every small city and town where they’ve taken the film. The screenings become forums, places to meet where there has been no place, to talk where there is a desire to talk but little occasion.

"For the longest time, the gay movement told people in rural areas, Just move to the city and come out," Joe said afterward. He was raised in Oil City, and one sister still won’t talk to him. "That’s not an answer if you’re connected to your family, your job, your town. And you can’t expect oppressed individuals to take the whole burden of coming out on themselves." The closet is still a product of culture; its persistence the blackmail note waiting to be written for any sexual outlaw, along the arc of the Kinsey scale, even salty old sailors who just want some fun with the boys.