It’s a time-honored tradition that when a powerful man is bigoted, there will inevitably be claims made about how his behavior is a direct result of repressed homosexuality. That claim, whether they’re serious, joking or somewhere in between, is not funny and never has been.
Yes, there are certainly men who follow this pattern. Aaron Schock, a former U.S. Republican Representative who voted against marriage equality, was filmed at a gay club earlier this year, though he hasn’t officially said anything about how he identifies. The classic example is Roy Cohn, a direct contributor to the Lavender Scare that barred gays and lesbians from U.S. government positions, who was closeted and later died of AIDS.
Closeted gay men are not the majority of bigoted people in this world. Most bigots do not need a deep, dark reason to be bigots. Most homophobes are homophobic because of the society they were raised in.
When someone makes claims about Mike Pence or Lindsay Graham being secretly gay, it correlates horrible behavior with homosexuality. It says that the only way they could be so homophobic is if they were gay themselves. It also correlates being closeted with being homophobic, which is an extremely harmful rhetoric that will just result in your average queer person being even less willing to come out.
This train of thought is dominant far beyond the world of politics — well-meaning people will say the same about homophobic high school bullies.
Maybe, in a few scattered cases, that might hold true. But when straight people insist that closetedness is the only reason for someone to lash out against gay people, they’re promoting a narrative that gay people oppress themselves. It removes straight peoples' prejudice from the equation — they can acquit themselves from any wrongdoing.
The homophobia in our culture undeniably comes from straight people. If a queer person does lash out against other queer people, that didn’t come from nowhere. It comes from the homophobia that’s been taught to them over a lifetime by heteronormative society.
In the case of politicians, it can be even more harmful. Calling Mike Pence secretly gay might seem like a “gotcha!” but according to our president, Mike Pence “wants to hang” gay people. Calling him gay erases and delegitimizes the fear and pain he’s caused.
And then there are the pure jokes. SNL capitalizes on Trump and Putin’s supposed love affair constantly. No one actually thinks Trump is gay, of course, with his famous catchphrase of where he grabs women.
That exposes the actual reason these claims are so prevalent. These jokes portray a homophobic worldview where there is nothing more humiliating or emasculating than a suggestion of gay sex. Accusing powerful men of having gay sex is a way for people who find that embarrassing to take men down a peg and make them less of a man. The Washington Post called gay romance as used in these instances “a metaphor for political weakness and inefficiency.”
There are far fewer cases of people calling homophobic women lesbians. It’s overwhelmingly clear that the primary reason these jokes are made is because gay sex between men is the most embarrassing, least masculine thing critics can think of — which is problem within itself.
Claims of this nature are not the most homophobic thing about political coverage, but it’s certainly not helping to call out actual homophobia. It certainly doesn’t stop powerful men from negatively affecting queer peoples' lives.