Drawing by Gigi Silla.
Gigi Silla; Washington, DC—
I’ve never been one for politics. Sure, I hate Trump and stan Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as much as the next Washingtonian teen, but I’ve never obsessed over primaries and Senate seats the way some of my peers do. So even I was surprised when I signed up to volunteer for a congressional campaign this summer after being encouraged by a politically involved friend and a desire to fill the abundant free time of my pandemic-induced summer at home.
I started volunteering for Alex Morse in late June. Morse is a young, first-time congressional candidate from a rural district in western Massachusetts and has been the mayor of Holyoke, MA since 2011. He’s 31 years old, openly gay, supports the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. After receiving endorsements from left-wing political organizations like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, has begun to garner national attention. Morse is part of a wave of progressive candidates looking to take Congress by storm, a wave that started back in 2018 with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar and that hopes to continue in 2020 with the likes of Morse, Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman. Morse embodies everything that his opponent, democratic incumbent Richard Neal, does not. Neal has been in politics for over thirty years, is the only Massachusetts representative who does not support the Green New Deal and takes the most business PAC money in donations out of anyone in Congress.
Volunteering with the “Morse Force” this summer was nothing short of delightful. I made calls to voters in the district twice a week for over a month, inspired to come back again and again by the kind and ambitious volunteers I met over Zoom. The good calls I made were the ones during which I moved a voter from “undecided” to “likely Morse supporter.” The best calls I made were the ones during which I forged a genuine human connection with the person on the other end of the line, particularly when that person was also queer. “When Alex was elected mayor in 2011, he was the youngest, first openly gay mayor in the Commonwealth,” read the second line of my script. Every now and then someone would stop me there. “Oh, really? Well, I’m a lesbian,” one woman told me with an awkward laugh. Another told me: “You know, my brother was gay. I lost him a number of years ago to AIDS. Sorry, I hope I’m not oversharing.” It was moving, speaking with other queer people and getting excited with them about the prospect of a gay representative in Congress from their district. “Queering Congress” was how the other volunteers and I described the campaign’s mission, when we didn’t describe it as “saving America.”
On a Sunday in early August, I shared a socially-distanced brunch with some friends from a food truck in my neighborhood. While chatting about our relatively quiet summers, I mentioned I had been phonebanking for Alex Morse. “Did you hear what happened to him?” my friend, Abby, asked. I shook my head. She proceeded to tell me in so many words that Morse had been accused by the UMass Amherst Democrats in a letter earlier that week of engaging in inappropriate behavior with students while teaching at the university and of taking advantage of his position of political and academic power for his own “romantic or sexual gain.” Morse did not deny that he had sexual relationships with students at UMass Amherst but maintained that all his past relationships were consensual. Not two weeks later, the Intercept published an article reporting that the allegations were largely untrue and that leaders of the UMass Amherst Democrats had orchestrated the allegedly predatory direct messages between Morse and a student.
The allegations from the UMass Amherst Democrats shook the Morse campaign in a way previous slander and scandals did not. When the Neal campaign released an attack ad in mid July citing Morse’s previous inaction on cases of police brutality in Holyoke, the Morse campaign responded quickly, giving volunteers information about the ad and the resources to accurately refute its claims to voters over the phone. When the allegations from the UMass Amherst Democrats came out, the campaign halted all voter outreach including phonebanks and canvassing for about four days, a move which, with three weeks until election day, could have serious consequences for the outcome of the race.
The news was frustrating, to say the least. It was frustrating because a candidate who had branded himself as a man of the people and a fighter for marginalized communities had allegedly abused his power in serious ways. However, it was also frustrating because the backlash against Morse and the calls for him to drop out due to the allegations were so much louder and more extreme than they often are for straight men in similar or worse positions. As UMass Amherst Democrats banned Morse from attending their meetings over vague and ultimately untrue allegations, the Democratic National Convention prepared to usher in Joe Biden as the party’s presidential nominee, a politician whom numerous women have accused of sexual assault and misconduct over the course of several decades. The juxtaposition between these two events is a reminder that the purity standard remains substantially higher for queer candidates than for straight male candidates, for whom it lies practically underground.
Take, for example, former Representative Katie Hill of California, an openly bisexual politician who resigned from Congress in late 2019 after a sex scandal and her subsequent public humiliation. The scandal was different from the one Morse faced in that it involved Hill’s estranged ex-husband, leaked nudes and an affair with a staffer and in that her Republican counterparts deployed the age-old tactic of silencing and disempowering a woman via sexual humiliation. However, Morse’s and Hill’s scandals both highlight the ways in which straight men regularly get away with ethically ambiguous sexual behavior, whereas queer folks already deviate from the confines of heteronormativity by simply being queer and are therefore held to a much higher standard of ethical and sexual purity. Tell me, if a (white) straight male politician had slept with a staffer or with a college student several years his junior, would the public and the press be quite so vocal in calling for his resignation?
Morse and Hill should not receive some kind of special pass for ethically ambiguous sexual behavior simply because they are queer. Furthermore, it is imperative that we bring conversations around sexual assault and coercion within the queer community into the mainstream, as discussions of consent (especially in the era of #MeToo) all too often sit squarely in the framework of heteronormativity. However, the Democratic Party also needs to seriously examine it’s habit of cherry-picking which stories of sexual misconduct to tell and which ones to hide, particularly when it comes to protecting more moderate and established straight male Democrats, while keeping queer and female left-wing challengers at bay.