In discussing the scandal engulfing former House speaker Dennis Hastert, one thing must be made absolutely clear. What he is alleged to have done to young boys has absolutely nothing to do with being gay or gay rights.
The indictment against Hastert, revealed May 28, charges the Illinois Republican with lying to federal officials about why he had evaded bank regulations by making withdrawals of less than $10,000 between 2012 and 2014. That was after his numerous withdrawals of $50,000 in the previous two years raised red flags at his bank. Hastert, who was a high school teacher and wrestling coach until 1981, was trying to avoid discovery of $1.7 million of $3.5 million in hush money to a man he allegedly sexually abused when that man was a student. The FBI also talked to another individual who was not being paid by Hastert.
Then, the sister of another alleged victim went public. Jolene Burdge told ABC News that when she asked her brother Stephen Reinboldt when his first same-sex experience was, “He looked at me and said, ‘It was with Dennis Hastert.’ “Burdge’s brother died of AIDS in 1995. A classmate told NBC News that Reinboldt told him that he and Hastert “would do things sexually, and it would sometimes start with a massage.” The revelation of a diving trip to the Bahamas that Hastert took with Reinboldt and other boys of an Explorers club he ran only adds to the sick feeling that the worst is yet to come.
Almost immediately after the news broke of Hastert’s indictment, folks looked to Congress for signs of hypocrisy. Former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is gay, made an assertion during an appearance on Huffington Post Live last Monday that was flat-out inappropriate.
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“Dennis Hastert twice as speaker tried to get the House to pass a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage [and] in fact retroactively would have canceled marriages that happened in Massachusetts,” he said. “So when someone who himself has engaged in same-sex activity then uses his position of great power to try to penalize other people who are doing that, that’s the kind of hypocrisy that should be penalized.”
Frank repeated this in several television interviews, including in a segment with me on MSNBC’s Hardball. He is wrong to make a link between gay rights and the accusations of immorality against Hastert.
What Hastert allegedly did has nothing to do with being gay or the push by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans to ensure that equal protection under the law applies to them. What he allegedly did — sexually abuse a number of underage boys — was criminal. The same goes for reality television star and conservative moralist Josh Duggar, who admitted sexually molesting young girls, including several of his sisters, when he was a teenager. His sexual orientation doesn’t factor into the scandal coverage because it is irrelevant.
LGBT Americans, especially teachers, have fought for decades to get folks to understand that LGBT adults do not pose an automatic danger to children. Some people still refuse to accept this. That’s why branding Hastert a hypocrite now because he opposed LGBT rights as speaker is a leap I refuse to take. Were Hastert discovered to have had a consensual same-sex relationship with an adult, Frank would have no argument from me on his hypocrisy slam. Had Hastert been nabbed by police for allegedly trying to engage in a same-sex encounter in an airport bathroom, for instance, Frank’s assertion would be solid. But Hastert wasn’t.
Now, where Frank gets it right is on the moral hypocrisy displayed by Hastert and so many other holier-than-thou Republicans thundering about values. Frank reminded Hardball host Chris Matthews that Hastert followed a line of flawed House leaders who pushed for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998: “Hastert was the third guy to be speaker. First, you had Newt Gingrich, who was having an affair with his third wife cheating on his second wife with whom he cheated on his first wife. And you then … had Bob Livingston who had to quit because he had had sex with a lobbyist. So … these people leading the charge against Clinton? Clinton was the choir boy.”
To distract the conversation from this with musings about how Hastert’s hypocrisy is a part of the larger gay-rights struggle is as ill-advised as it it is wrong. Alleged sexual abuse of minors is at the center of the Hastert scandal. And that’s where the focus should remain.
Jonathan Capehart is a member of The Washington Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.
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