Former Congressman Aaron Schock came out as gay in an Instagram post on Thursday. I don’t think there’s any need to employ the obvious, eponymous pun on whether that news had been expected.
In a year where an openly married gay man won the first presidential nominating contest and President Donald Trump is ham-handedly shouting out his support for the LBGTQ community and nine-year-olds are asking presidential candidates about their sexual identity and RuPaul hosted SNL … the tale about a middle-aged conservative man coming out of the closet feels rather anachronistic.
In part that anachronistic feeling is a good thing. It exists because the tides of the times have eased the challenge of coming out for many young Americans. This has led the dominant culture to largely move on from it, determining that this is a mountain that we have already scaled.
But it also feels anachronistic because Schock’s story is one of another place, preserved in amber from Peoria, Illinois, 2007, in a past from which he keeps trying and failing to break free. Schock is like many Americans outside the urban pockets of gay thriving: still struggling with their sexuality and confused by why their pain persists when they perceive that the changing mores are making things so easy for others.
For those gays, Schock could have been a model. His announcement could have been transparent and vulnerable and freeing. But instead it revealed he’s still struggling with a family that won’t accept him and with past decisions that he’s not ready to take ownership of. That’s what made an announcement that might’ve been a day for rejoicing or repentance or both, feel, to me, mostly melancholy.
Aaron Schock and I entered gay Washington social circles around the same time, around the same age, and both as Republicans. I returned to town from working in Iowa for John McCain’s presidential campaign. I was spooked by the news of sad, old Larry Craig tapping his foot in an airport bathroom and quickly determined that I needed to come out of the closet, take a break from the Sarah Palin-ized party I had been working for and start fully living the life I had been denying myself. This was the best decision I made in my life.
Schock returned in a different context and, unfortunately for him, never believed he had the opportunity to do the same. He was the youngest member of Congress with the hottest of klieg lights on him. I presume his expectation was that he would live as he always had in Peoria and Springfield, closeted, and focused on his work. But he didn’t anticipate the life-altering experience that awaited him in the Capitol: living and working around men that he wanted to sleep with and who wanted to sleep with him.
This may sound cheeky, but it is the crux of the conundrum that faced Schock. He said himself in his coming-out post: “I’m sure I knew other gay people in those years of growing up, but I don’t think any of us were aware of it.”
So put yourself in his shoes as he lands at Reagan National as the nation’s youngest congressman. You’ve spent 27 years burying your sexuality, living in tiny towns far from the meccas where gay peers had fled to feel seen and known. Having never, or only fleetingly, been even tempted to come out of your shell because you hadn’t seen a path to do it or anyone to do it with.
Then you get off the plane in Washington, D.C. at the beginning of the city’s Obama-era gay boom. Gay men you could see yourself with are everywhere. People like you had been coming to D.C. for decades — just as staff, not congressmen — so these guys know you better than you know yourself. Many of them are you, just from Pawtucket rather than Peoria. But you are a Republican congressman, so there is nothing that you can do about it.
This was the prison that Schock walked into, without even knowing it.
So he tried an underground prison break. While D.C. is a big town (compared to Peoria), it’s still a small place when it comes to gossip. There were whispers that the new Republican congressman was spotted at a gay bar or was dating a male staffer. So he was quickly pressured by colleagues who had caught wind of the rumors, forced once again into the prison where he had spent his whole life, right after getting the first gasp of air.
So he presses forward, closeted and ambitious. He takes some atrocious anti-gay votes: opposing the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, against expanding workplace protections to gays, in favor of banning same-sex marriage. He makes atrocious decisions — using campaign funds to buy Katy Perry tickets (c’mon man), a $74,000 car, and stays at America’s most lavish resorts. Worse, he used taxpayer money on gaudy office renovations. In 2015, he gets chased out of town with legal issues resulting from his taxpayer-funded office glow-up, right around the time that an openly gay Republican congressman might’ve thrived.
It’s clear the pain from his upbringing and those choices lingers. His coming-out post mentioned that his family still sends him emails suggesting conversion therapy and that he is holding out hope that over time they will accept him. He takes a shot at the “woke” media for stalking him, but he doesn’t apologize or take accountability for what he did to bring criticism upon himself.
Instead, he still hasn’t fully broken out of the amber. Trapped by a family that didn’t fully accept him for who he is. By a community that didn’t welcome him. By a party that wanted to both elevate him and bury him at the same time. By his own inability to imagine how better choices could have made his pain end sooner.
Twenty years earlier, he would’ve been part of the secret velvet mafia. Ten years later, he might’ve been the gay Republican “it boy.” There’s some measure of progress there. Though not enough.
His story is a reminder that there are still individuals and communities trapped in this anachronism today. There are still Republican politicians passing bathroom bills. In over half the states, you can still be fired for being gay. There’s still the chance to fight for positive change, to be a model, as Mayor Pete was, for kids yearning for gay guides that they can relate to. This is an opportunity that Aaron Schock missed.
The next Aaron Schock will have a much simpler path if they arrive in Washington and subsequently decide they have discovered something about their sexuality they hadn’t previously been ready to come to terms with. Hopefully they’ll be able to break free from the amber in a way he was not.
Tim Miller is a contributor to The Bulwark. He was previously Communications Director for Jeb Bush 2016 and the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC.