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RIPLEY: Open to lead

By declining to challenge gay rumors, Booker challenges homophobia in politics

Newark Mayor Cory Booker recently coasted to a landslide victory in the New Jersey Senate democratic primary. Booker received about 60 percent of the vote, surpassing Frank Pallone, who nabbed 20 percent. Booker is expected to defeat Republican Steve Lonegan easily in the special senate election in October.

You might be wondering why I’ve chosen to write a column about an election in a state that probably seems foreign to the majority of The Cavalier Daily’s readership. But I hope you won’t be so quick to dismiss my intentions. Though, as a New Jersey native, I am personally concerned with the political tides of my home state, those region-specific issues are not the subject of this column. Rather, I turn to the New Jersey Senate election as a case study, in order to discuss an issue that is relevant everywhere: LGBT tolerance, equality and representation.

Cory Booker has been something of a celebrity in the political arena. If you’re a New Jersey resident and you read the newspaper, you’d probably heard of him even before he announced his campaign for Senate. You’ve also probably heard of the speculation that he is gay.

Booker has never confirmed or denied these rumors about his sexuality. But he did tell the Washington Post the following: “People who think I’m gay — some part of me thinks it’s wonderful, 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.’”

Steve Lonegan has criticized Booker for his ambiguity, positing that the Newark mayor is attempting to win the LGBT vote by keeping open the possibility that he might himself be gay. But the most important question here is not whether Cory Booker is gay. It is not even why he won’t confirm or deny it. The most important question at hand is this: are we ready to elect an openly gay senator?

There have only been a handful of openly gay or lesbian politicians elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) was in 2012 the first openly gay politician to win election to the U.S. Senate. No openly gay state governor has ever been elected, and the only state governor ever to come out as gay was New Jersey’s Jim McGreevy, who confessed his sexual orientation in the same speech in which he resigned.

The tides have certainly changed in the last two decades, but there is still much work to be done. Currently, 13 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized gay marriage. But 35 states have explicitly banned it. New Jersey offers civil unions to gay couples, but not marriage, since Governor Christie vetoed such legislation in 2012, suggesting that the matter should be left up to a referendum.

Some have argued that same-sex marriage is a human rights issue, and therefore should not be decided by popular consensus of the general public. But the election of representatives to our legislature is always in the hands of the people. The legalization of gay marriage is not the only barometer by which we can or should measure the growing acceptance of the LGBT community. Passing a piece of legislation that guarantees gay people the same rights as straight people is one means of moving towards equality. But electing a representative who happens to be gay is another. It’s easy for someone say, “I’m fine with gay people. I’m fine with them getting married,” but still maintain the attitude that those who are different have to stay over there in their corner and keep away from the political discourse of our heteronormative, patriarchal society.

Booker wants to challenge that. His ambiguity about his sexuality is a step toward destroying the notion that “straight” must be a characteristic on the résumé of every elected official. If somebody poses the question, his answer is that it does not matter, that sexual orientation has no bearing on one’s capabilities as a leader. But Booker’s obscurity also reminds us that there is still much incentive not to reveal the whole truth — that for some, disclosing your identity to the public can be a risk. And the presence of that risk is an impediment to achieving equal opportunity for all citizens, regardless of sexuality.

Booker is right — it does not matter whether he is gay or straight, in the sense that he will still be a qualified member of the U.S. Senate. But in a different sense, it does matter. It matters in the way we — the American people — offer equal opportunity to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Can we look at a candidate who admits that he or she happens to be a member of a minority, and can we say: “it does not matter”? That is the true test of equality in a country founded on the idea that with hard work and effort, anyone can succeed. And until we find someone who is courageous enough to step up and say, “This is who I am, will you let me lead you?” we won’t know the answer to that question.

Katherine Ripley is an Opinion editor for The Cavalier Daily.

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