WASHINGTON — At the Republican National Convention in 2000, Rep. Mark Foley hosted a late-night bash at a Philadelphia gay bar, where an acquaintance snapped a photo of an attractive young intern sitting on the Florida congressman's lap.
Months later, according to the acquaintance, when she offered to send him the photo, Foley looked anxious.
The intern, "male or female?" he inquired.
"Female" was the reply.
"Oh, thank God," Foley responded. "Send me that photo, I might need it someday."
For most Republicans, being photographed in a compromising position with a young woman could be scandalous. But in the sometimes strained world of gay Republicans, it was an asset.
Foley resigned a week ago over revelations that he had engaged in sexually explicit online banter with male teenagers. And though it was the age of those House pages that forced his downfall and a criminal investigation, Foley's sexual orientation had been a huge political liability for him for years.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 08, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Gay Republicans: An article in Friday's Section A about the political risks of homosexuality in the GOP's ranks contained erroneous information about the Advocate, whose website posted an interview with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Its website is Advocate.com; it is a national gay and lesbian newsmagazine, not a newspaper; and it is based in Los Angeles, not Boston.
Gays hold many prominent positions in government and business in Washington. But in the GOP ranks, homosexuality is still politically risky. In fact, with the exception of the military, perhaps no institution in America has as strong a "don't ask, don't tell" approach as the Republican Party.
"Obviously, the far right has kind of got a stranglehold on the Republican Party," said Minnesota state Rep. Paul Koering, a Republican who came out publicly last year. "The very first time I ran, I literally almost made myself sick worrying about somebody finding out I was gay."
Congress has three openly gay members, one of them a Republican -- Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who is retiring when this term ends. Kolbe acknowledged his sexual orientation in 1996 after a gay magazine was about to "out" him for voting against government recognition of same-sex marriages.
Staffers from both parties say they think that several other Republican members of Congress are gay but, at least officially, in the closet.
"It's kind of like a secret society," said a gay former congressional staffer who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
One reason for the secrecy, gay Republicans say, is that their party has grown more hostile to gays in recent years. The trend began with the 2002 congressional election, when GOP leaders made the strategic decision to use religious conservative groups' opposition to gay marriage to turn out voters. For those groups, which consider homosexuality a deviant "lifestyle," few issues rile their membership more.
"While pro-homosexual activists like to claim that pedophilia is a completely distinct orientation from homosexuality, evidence shows a disproportionate overlap between the two," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said this week in a message to supporters.
David Catania, who serves on the District of Columbia city council and is gay, said he left the Republican Party over its opposition to gay marriage. He expressed sympathy for his gay friends who remained active Republicans.
"They've hitched their stars to the party, hoping to hunker down and ride out the Taliban-esque wing, hoping their views will come back into the mainstream," Catania said. "It's got to be very demoralizing for them."
A gay Democratic staffer said gay Republican friends tended to walk a narrow line.
"It's difficult for them," the staffer said. "For the most part, they grew up in Republican households and families. It's like a religion to them. They may even be out to their families. But they are not out professionally."
Early in Foley's congressional career, friends and associates say, he took measures to deflect attention from his sexual orientation. He showed up at parties with a woman on his arm, made references to girlfriends, and used photos of himself with his sister and niece in campaign literature. Many voters assumed the photo showed him with a wife and daughter.
In Florida, Foley had a host of glamorous and wealthy female companions, including Petra Levin, a former model and philanthropist, and Nancy Jean Davis, the Miami heir to the McArthur Dairy fortune.
"He always had a knockout woman on his arm," said Jack Furnari, president of the Boca Raton Republican Club. "People would say, 'See that woman Mark was with?' and chuckle. It was all a show."
At times and in certain circles, however, Foley was less reticent about being seen with his longtime male partner, friends and associates say. In Palm Beach, the luxury winter resort island that some describe as fiscally conservative but socially liberal, Foley would arrive at fundraisers and galas with his companion, a local dermatologist. But they always sat at separate tables.
Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Republican Party of Palm Beach County, who says he saw Foley a month ago at a restaurant with Foley's companion as well as his sister and her husband, said the congressman's sexuality was not an issue in Palm Beach.