It's almost too good to be true: One of the most powerful, antigay Republican politicians in Washington turns out to be gay. The Spokesman-Review reports that Spokane Mayor Jim West spent time cruising the Internet for young men, apparently from City Hall.
He denies having told a City Council member that he masturbated during these online exchanges. "I didn't masturbate in my office," he insists with Clintonian specificity. He did, however, admit to masturbating with an 18-year-old date in a parking lot.
Further, the outed pol complains, "I am being destroyed because I am a gay man, which is fine. I've been in public life. I can accept that. Because I am a gay man, because of this double life, it has been hell."
So a new poster child for gay rights is born.
It is tempting to become distracted by the monumental hypocrisy of it all, coming from one of the state's chief gay persecutors. Jim West is a right-winger who has actually enjoyed legislative gay bashing. Not only that, in 1990 he tried to outlaw all sexual contact between teenagers, including oral sex and heavy petting. Maybe his legislative actions were a kind of cry for help written in lipstick on the mirror of law: "Stop me before I have sex with teens again!" We'll let his shrink sort that out.
But as King County Executive Ron Sims said of West, on Al Franken's national Air America radio broadcast from Town Hall on Monday, May 9: "Don't let him hide behind being gay."
The headline in the Seattle Post- Intelligencer last week screamed, "Gay Sex Scandal Rocks Spokane," but the "gayness" of the scandal was the least of it. The issue isn't whether West is bisexual or gay or confused, or whether he does it in the office, in the parking lot, or even with prospective interns. Nor is it about a politician succumbing to the twin aphrodisiacs of power and secrecy. Let's stay focused: There are alleged victims who say he's a serial pedophile.
While some of his supporters are no doubt horrified by West's wild gay ways, and while liberals relish the downfall of another self-loathing conservative queer, dwelling on his gayness is a distraction. His lies, explanations, and bad judgment offer us, at most, context for the truly serious charge that he molested kids in the 1970s and '80s while he was a Boy Scout leader and deputy sheriff—sometimes in his squad car. West denies the charges and is on leave to defend against them.
The headline "Boy Scout leader molests boys" is starting to read like a dog-bites-man pronouncement that surprises no one these days. But the alleged crimes here aren't about public outrage but about the real, sometimes lifelong damage done when adults sexually exploit kids. These crimes go way beyond the stupidity of using your government computer for sex chats or having a private life completely at odds with the public policies you propound. We're talking about rape by folks who are trusted to take care of the kids they're abusing.
And they say gay marriage will destroy our sacred institutions.
The Spokesman-Review should be commended for getting these allegations out in the open with two victims willing to go on the record. There was a time when such stories went unreported, or were actively suppressed. Longtime Seattleites will remember that rumors swirled for years around King County Superior Court Judge Gary Little, a charismatic and well-connected man who sexually abused teenage boys. Media investigations never quite seemed to get the goods on him, and his behavior was a kind of creepy open secret for years before he was finally nailed by reporter Duff Wilson, then at the P-I. On the eve of exposure in 1988, Little took his own life, but the question that lingered long after his death was: Why did it take so long to stop this guy?
The Spokesman-Review took its time: The stories about West capped a three-year probe. During that time, we all went to school on the massive Catholic Church abuse scandals, which have helped to educate the public on how widespread abuse is and how the patterns of abuse, cover-up, and denial work. The benefit of the doubt is now shifting from the powerful perpetrators to the victims and accusers. The West story might never have been reported had not so many victims in other cases stepped forward and found vindication, and had not the stigma of being a victim decreased a little.
West is having his day in the court of public opinion. Whether that leads to any other days in court is unknown. If so, it's lucky for him he hasn't always gotten his way. Back in 1990, when West was pushing the bill to ban teen sex, GOP right-wingers in Olympia were pushing a bill that would allow the state to castrate sex offenders. A proposal to make castration mandatory died in committee, but a second bill, co-sponsored by state Sen. Ellen Craswell, would have incentivized castration by offering offenders shorter sentences in exchange for their family jewels. The Senate passed the bill. West was one of those voting "yea."
So West should thank his lucky stars that wiser heads eventually prevailed and that the barbaric bill never became law.