You will by now likely have read about the recent uproar over whether New Jersey Senatorial candidate Cory Booker is gay. For the record, Booker is not gay (as he has stated several times). Even if he were gay, it shouldn’t matter to the public at large. The office he’s seeking doesn’t require him to have sex with his constituents, after all. He’s just supposed to devise the laws by which they are governed.
But that’s what’s great about America. As a population, we’re so neurotic about masculinity that any famous man who is unmarried at the age of 44 and works out a lot and admits to enjoying manicures and speaks with a slight lisp gets put on the Gay Watch List.
You know about the Gay Watch List, right? Just ask James Franco, who spent most of last night’s Comedy Central Roast smirking at a cavalcade of gay jokes. Speculating about which of our macho celebrities is secretly engaged in man sex has become one of our favorite cultural drinking games.
Booker is an especially tantalizing target because he’s a rising star in the Democratic Party, already being spoken of as a future presidential candidate. Progressives want him to admit he’s gay so they can add another prominent name to the cause. Conservatives want him to admit he’s gay because they figure this will disqualify him from national office.
It’s also worth noting that Booker is a former Stanford football player who just happens to be African-American. (Yes, he played tight end.) And there’s nothing more secretly gratifying to a nation full of wimpy Caucasian sports fans (who are emasculated by SportsCenter highlights on a nightly basis) than to watch a strapping African-American athlete accused of being insufficiently masculine.
Because, whether we choose to admit it or not, our culture views African-American men, and athletes in particular, as heterosexual superheroes who have sex with countless women, then write memoirs about it. Which is why dudes like his Senatorial opponent, Steve Lonegan, take a certain pathetic glee in impugning Booker’s manhood.
It’s all so enlightened.
The most obvious reason that Booker isn’t married is not that he’s gay, but that he’s hyper-ambitious and doesn’t have a lot of time for romance. Of course, this doesn’t explain why Booker has always kept his romantic life under wraps. My guess on this—and it’s just that, a guess—is that he prefers to date white women to African Americans, and he’s afraid of the fallout. It’s one thing to be gay in America; we’re getting on board with that. It’s quite another to date or marry across race. He’d be accused of being a sexual predator (by white bigots) and a race traitor (by bigots of color).
Whatever the source of his discretion, it’s led him to violate a central tenet of masculinity, which is that a powerful man should have a beautiful woman at his side, for photo ops if nothing else. Arm candy has always been an essential totem of masculine power.
Consider The Iliad: the reason Achilles gets so furious is because Agamemnon steals his babe. (Of course, the ancient Greeks didn’t have the same heterosexist hang-ups we do, which is why Achilles spent so much tender time with his pal Patroclus.) Then again, it says something profound about the progress we’ve made as a society that folks like Booker, and Franco, feel no need to deny that they’re gay. Much as the Steve Lonegans of the world might wish for a world in which our morals were in line with the nutbags from the Westboro Baptist Church, most of us have moved on. We have gay friends and relatives. It’s just not that big a deal.
In fact, the ultimate sin Cory Booker has committed in all this—at least in the leering eyes of the media—has nothing to do with who’s in his bed. It’s the refreshing fact that he’s refused to discuss who’s in his bed at all.