Even a little PG-rated beefcake can be political ammo in Washington, D.C. Just ask Jonathan Tolman, a star of Metro Weekly's "Coverboy Confidential" feature in May 2001.
Last week, activist and blogger Michael Rogers targeted Tolman as part of a larger campaign to expose closeted GLBT people on Capitol Hill as Congress begins battling over whether the U.S. Constitution will be amended to bar same-sex marriages.
While Tolman's appearance in Metro Weekly is evidence that he is out of the closet -- at least to some degree -- it doesn't change the fact that his work supports one of the most virulently anti-gay members of the Senate to co-sponsor the Federal Marriage Amendment, Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe.
"[Tolman] may be gay, and he may be a cover boy in Metro Weekly, but he's no friend of the gay and lesbian community," insists Rogers. "He is in bed with the enemy every single day. If he can refer to the senator as 'Jim,' we can see where his loyalties are."
While Inhofe has publicly pledged not to hire gay staffers, that prohibition does not apply to Tolman, who is directly employed by the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works. Inhofe chairs the committee.
Rogers' web site, www.michaelrogers.us, includes Tolman's phone number on the Hill so that readers can chide Tolman directly. It's one of the few ways to reach Tolman now, as his home phone number has been disconnected.
See the original Coverboy Confidential interview from May 10, 2001
(2MB PDF file)
Tolman declined to be interviewed for this article, but did speak last week to the Washington Blade.
"The senator knows I'm gay and it's not going to change his position and he's not firing me," Tolman told the Blade. "So my question to [Rogers] is: Are you going to let it drop?"
It seems the answer is "no."
Says Rogers, "I did speak with Tolman directly many times. On the phone, he is seemingly a very nice guy. What I would say to Tolman about his career is that it's very disturbing to me that a seemingly nice guy would choose his career over untold generations of gays and lesbians, and generations to come.
"The conspiracy of silence that for too long has insulated these community members is no longer tolerable."
Some community members disagree.
As former president of the D.C. chapter of Log Cabin Republicans, a national group for gay Republicans, Mike Ferens has some insight into Tolman's position. As a former Metro Weekly coverboy himself, the similarities go much further.
"In their effort to gain freedom, activists are taking Tolman's freedom," says Ferens, who says he never supports "outing" as a political weapon. "It is na´ve. It's an extreme. It reminds me of activists throwing condoms in churches. It actually feeds our opposition."
Ferens also argues that by being a coverboy, Tolman was already open about his sexuality, even if he does work closely with an anti-gay senator.
Ferens guesses that the motivation for targeting Tolman and other Hill staffers has more to do with vilification than with defending the gay community.
"My guess is this is done to humiliate or embarrass people who work for conservatives, because [GLBT activists] need to be waving the rainbow flag wherever they go," says Ferens. "I think it's disrespectful. Tolman is already out. His job is a separate issue."
A top-level, gubernatorial appointee in the heart of the Deep South agrees with Ferens -- to a point. As a gay Republican who considers himself "out personally, but not out professionally," threatening to make political hay of someone's sexuality in the political arena is poor strategy.
"I think 'outing' is counter-productive," he says. "There are things closeted people can do subtly.
"A good friend of mine is an associate commissioner of one of the biggest, butchest football associations in the world. Included in their handbook now is a no-discrimination-on-sexual-orientation policy. That's a great example of someone being cool and quiet and doing what he could to be successful."
On the other hand, he points to figures like televangelist Jimmy Swaggart who preached against adultery from the pulpit while engaging in his own extramarital affair.
"I think the threat would be appropriate if someone has the authority to make policy, if that person is known to be closeted and is running a witch hunt," reckons the closeted appointee -- whose sexual orientation the Christian Coalition tried to use against him. "That's an instance when somebody should be called down: Cool it, or we will expose you. But even in those instances, I would at least threaten before doing it."
Sean Bugg, Metro Weekly's editor-in-chief, seems a little surprised that the "Coverboy Confidential" feature has managed to enter the political fray.
"It's all meant to be fun and playful," Bugg explains. The weekly feature is part of the magazine's "Nightlife" section, and consists of photos and interviews with local gay men.
"It's a shame that anyone would view Tolman negatively because of it, because it's supposed to be a fun, light feature," says Bugg.
Whatever the nature of the "Coverboy Confidential," Tolman told the Blade that doing it was a mistake, largely because he "didn't know what it involved."
Bugg says that claim was surprising, given that the questions asked in the interview were fairly straightforward:
"What's the current or last thing in your VCR or DVD player?" was one such question.
"A porn tape," Tolman replied.
"Who's the best match for Tom Cruise now that he's single again?" was another.
"Russell Crowe. I can see them together. And I think Tom is the bottom in that," answered Tolman.
Concludes Bugg about Tolman's participation: "He was gay and he agreed to do the interview. If you don't want to do the interview, you can't be the coverboy."
Ferens says the coverboy gig was actually helpful for his own political aspirations, explaining that though he was initially hesitant, the feature helped readers see gay Republicans as something more than "boring conservatives."
It's not likely that Tolman will be able to offer such a rosy retrospective anytime soon. If the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment favored by the right is going to be the preeminent battle in America's current culture war, Tolman may have to settle for going from coverboy to casualty.
Rogers says his current tactics are too successful to be abandoned.
"We give a thorough vetting to every case to make sure that we're accurate, and we check what the person does," says Rogers, explaining that he is not an army of one. "About a dozen [other activists] were involved in the Tolman decision. There was a general consensus.
"This is the biggest battle our community has ever faced in my lifetime," Rogers concludes. "This is war. They have declared war on my community. This has very little to do with Mike Rogers and Jonathan Tolman. [Our campaign] has been monumentally successful. Absolutely. And we've only just begun."