I was a U.S. House page seven years before Mark Foley was elected, so I never met him. I can, however, shed some light on a page’s perception of power and what it means to be the object of a congressman’s attention. At the age of sixteen, I was just coming to terms with my own sexuality. I was gay and my “radar” was on.
The adults around us – in school, at work and in the residence hall – went to great lengths to protect and guide us, acting in place of our parents. As revelations concerning Foley continue to emerge, I am surprised how easily the built-in system of oversight, the Page Board, composed of members of Congress, fell prey to politics. It seems that political “damage control” led otherwise responsible adults to look the other way.
Most members of Congress utterly ignore pages. This may be a result of the page sex scandal in the early ’80s, but it’s just as likely because most adults interact primarily with other adults. If a congressman knew me by name, I was shocked. It was different once I was assigned to the cloakroom, directly behind the House chamber, where members go to relax, get lunch, argue about a bill or take a nap. When people talk about back room politics – that’s the back room.
I worked in the Democratic cloakroom and every day I tended to the details of the day and members’ needs as they arose. I’d get a sandwich for one, hang up a jacket for another, or relay a message from a member about the current debate to his legislative analyst or chief of staff.
Often, I led Rep. Melvin Price (D‑Ill.), the oldest member of the House, by the arm. Despite his frailty, this 82-year old man was a powerhouse of leadership. In his 44 years of service, he had chaired numerous committees, including the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, authoring significant legislation. I was particularly honored to witness his soft-spoken kindness as he ambled delicately to and from the House chamber.
In the cloakroom, members would regularly tease us, the way a teacher or coach might. Any number of them made fun of my uniform with a, “Nice tie, kid.” Others regularly told us to cover our ears while telling racy jokes, including plenty of those featuring gay stereotypes. As do all kids, I absorbed it, quietly sorting out what to believe and what to discard. This type of interaction is a rite of passage, especially among men, and I can see how I was building my own character, brick by brick, as I grinned and chuckled along with “the guys.”
One day, after I tucked a pillow under his foot, which was in a cast, Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D‑Minn.) regaled me with the gory details of how, during his last district visit, he had cut off his big toe while mowing his lawn. He purposefully grossed me out, everybody laughed and then he took a nap. The environment mixed the comfort reminiscent of my own family’s living room with the seriousness of a fast-paced workplace.
I was very aware of the openly gay members of Congress. There were only a few – and the overriding public sentiment was negative. A few years earlier, Rep. Gerry Studds (D‑Mass.) had been censured for having sex with a male page. He was re-elected by his constituents, but was the subject of a running commentary of background chatter on the Hill. I practically ran the other way when I saw him in the House chamber or in a hallway. Although I knew better than to think all gay men were predators, it was clear to me that sex between pages and members was wrong. At that stage of my development, I was trying to distinguish good sense from homophobia, which was a challenge.
I would often watch Rep. Barney Frank (D‑Mass.) speak on the floor of the House, commenting on legislation, urging others to support a bill. He was openly gay, then untainted by scandal, but what I noticed most was his passion for his work. I also saw how other members interacted collegially with him. He was working hard, focused on his job. As a gay kid trying to integrate it all, I was beginning to see shades of meaning of the word “gay.” If Studds represented darkness and shame, Frank was the other – openness and confidence. This informed my own emerging identity and the choices I would make.
Rep. Dale Kildee (D‑Mich.), who was and still is on the Page Board, was consistently kind and welcoming, regularly dropping by the Page Desk, asking the group how we were enjoying our work, and thanking us for our service. Instead of singling out individuals, he was passionate about the program and the opportunities it brings young Americans. I never left an interaction with Kildee without feeling uplifted and proud…and protected. This is the type of interaction that feels right and every page knows it. I feel badly for any page who is singled out and approached on anything other than professional or collegial terms.
Because it was too far to travel back to my home in California, I accepted the invitation of a Capitol Hill staffer to join her family for Thanksgiving at her home in Virginia. She was one of the many adults who served as surrogate parents and confidantes as I struggled with homesickness and the typical ups and downs of my junior year of high school. I imagine this sort of friendship might become less possible, due to the culture of distrust that is emerging in the wake of the page scandal.
Many adults on the Hill look out for the best interest of the pages, exactly because of their obvious vulnerability. I did not choose to “come out” to anyone while I was a page – it was years later before I was ready for that. I did, however, have an opportunity to see a variety of people, some more flawed than others, make their own choices in the real world, and live with the consequences.
I am confident that if early concerns about Foley had been brought to the bipartisan Page Board, they would have been dealt with promptly and effectively. Moving forward, the greatest challenge will be restoring faith in the Congress – that the politicians charged with the well-being of teenagers on Capitol Hill will treat them as if they were their own children.