Matt Schlapp and the closet of power
Influential hypocritical men seeking same-sex interactions often exploit their authority over male subordinates
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The more we learn about the serious accusation against Matt Schlapp, the influential head of the American Conservative Union and chair of the far-right Conservative Political Action Conference, the more I’m brought back to stories told to me for my first book, which was published 30 years ago this June, and which, in that time, stirred a lot of controversy.
The accounts about men in power who promoted homophobia publicly while privately exploiting their influence as they made sexual advances on younger men who looked up to them resonate as much today as they did three decades ago. And the Schlapp story fits right in.
As first reported by The Daily Beast earlier this month, a male staffer on Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign — assigned to drive Schlapp to campaign events in Georgia last October — alleges Schlapp groped his groin in the car, and invited the man up to his hotel room (an offer the staffer declined) after they’d had a few drinks. The staffer felt violated and “dirty.” He was also aware of the exploitative nature of the incident, referring to the “power dynamic” with Schlapp, who’d told him he wanted to have drinks to discuss the man’s “professional future.”
The staffer told his wife in the morning, and made a video describing how Schlapp grabbed his “junk.” He reported the incident to the campaign that day, which he said “fully supported” him. The campaign confirmed that to the Daily Beast. Schlapp, via his attorney, strongly denied the account.
Since then, NBC and CNN have confirmed more about the story, including within the past week, viewing text messages surrounding the incident:
The staffer says he called and texted friends in real time to tell them what happened. CNN reviewed a text exchange between the staffer and a friend in politics, where the staffer is clearly upset and wondering how to tell the campaign that one of their surrogates had allegedly assaulted him. The exchange is being made public for the first time.
Schlapp apparently became worried about possible ramifications after the staffer, whom CNN identified as a Republican strategist who’d worked on several campaigns, texted him the next morning to say that he was “uncomfortable” about what happened the night before and would not be picking him up that morning.
Schlapp texted the staffer asking him to call him and then, per call logs CNN viewed, Schlapp repeatedly called the staffer. Later Schlapp texted again: “If you could see it in your heart to call me at the end of the day. I would appreciate it.”
It’s a story similar to those I revealed in “Queer in America: Sex, the Media and the Closets of Power,” published in 1993. The book, as well as my reporting previously in the now-defunct OutWeek magazine, caused an uproar in that time, because it was an exposé (or “outing,” to use the term Time magazine invented for what should simply be called “reporting”), of influential individuals in the power centers of New York, Washington and Hollywood.
But over these three decades the importance of reporting on this kind of hypocrisy — and certainly on workplace sexual harassment and assault — has been more fully realized. Many of those I reported on in “Queer in America” were deeply closeted gay or bisexual men in positions of power who were engaging in predatory behavior — and often trying to cover it up, all the while promoting anti-gay dogma in their professional lives.
These men make calculated decisions about whom to target. They prey upon men they believe to be vulnerable, who they either believe are gay or bisexual and struggling with their sexuality, or who may not be gay or bisexual, but whom they believe might feel pressured to go along, worried about career ramifications.
Some of the individuals I wrote about were discussed by name in the book; others weren’t. That decision was mostly based on agreements I made with sources, some of whom would only speak if the powerful individuals were not named (in order to protect themselves). Yet the stories were nonetheless valuable to report in order to illustrate the corruption of the closet as well the dangerous combination of the closeted and power.
The Schlapp allegation had me thinking back in particular to a man in the book I called “the Legislator,” an elected official on Capitol Hill at the time.
The Legislator, who’d voted anti-gay, appeared to hire young, attractive men to work in his office. One aide, Keith (not his real name) who spoke with me extensively under the condition that his and the Legislator’s name not be used, told me how he was both confused about his own sexuality (something he believes the Legislator sensed), and completely enamored of the Legislator at the time the Legislator made sexual advances.
Over a two-year period after the first advance, Keith became more comfortable being gay and began dating his first boyfriend — who also worked for the Legislator, and whom he told about the Legislator’s actions. I interviewed two other men who stated that sexual advances were made on them by the Legislator. Both of them told people in that time, with whom I also spoke.
In Keith’s case, the Legislator’s first advance came when he invited Keith to his home —while his wife was away — saying he wanted to discuss some political issues they were working on. They had a few drinks and eventually the Legislator began groping Keith, who froze. A bit intoxicated, still struggling with his own sexuality, and thinking of his career and how much he admired this man, Keith was confused and immobilized by fear. The situation progressed to the point where the Legislator performed oral sex on him.
Keith left the home feeling immense shame, blaming himself for not stopping it. The next day, the Legislator pulled him aside after a meeting, and said they’d had too much to drink the night before, and apologized.
And yet, it would happen again — and again. Keith also learned of another man who worked for the Legislator, in his home state office, who’d experienced something similar — and it, too, was a situation that occurred at least twice. Keith, after a period of two years in which he did a lot of soul-searching, talking it through with others, angrily confronted the Legislator, including about his voting record, and resigned. (The Legislator denied anything happened at that point, and issued a veiled threat.)
Another aide to the Legislator with whom I spoke at the time, Fred (not his real name), responded quite differently than Keith did to the sexual advance. He very quickly, sharply rejected the Legislator. The incident occurred inside the Legislator’s office late at night, after Fred declined an invitation to go to the Legislator’s home. After the Legislator groped him, Fred stood up, said he wasn’t interested, and left. He soon thereafter quit his job.
So, men like the Legislator sometimes miscalculate, and hit on someone who doesn’t initially respond the way they’d expected.
That appears to be the case regarding Schlapp’s alleged groping of the Walker campaign staffer. The man was stunned, told people, including his wife and those at the Walker campaign, and would eventually speak with the media.
In his defense, some have made the point that Schapp — who co-chaired Catholics for Trump in 2020 — is married to a woman, Mercedes Schlapp, who was an aide to Donald Trump, and that he has five children. But the Legislator and countless others have been married with children as well. Just because they’re married to women doesn’t mean these men don’t have same-sex attraction, and aren’t gay or bisexual. These men did make a choice, however, to confine themselves to conservative politics and anti-LGBTQ notions of “family values” that condemn any same-sex behavior.
The straitjacket they’ve put themselves in is what ultimately leads to predation within the workplace and business environments to fulfill sexual desires. It’s the dangerous combination of the closet and power. Unable to go out in public, or even meet men via other forums (like online or on apps) for fear of being found it, they look for targets among men over whom they have power and who might succumb to their advances for one reason or another.
This was true of powerful New York media and financial figures I wrote about as well, like Malcolm Forbes, whom several men, both named and unnamed, told me sexually harassed them.
And it was true about Hollywood moguls, such as Merv Griffin, who was eventually sued by one man claiming sexual harassment (though the case was thrown out). Griffin was also threatened by those in the workplace whom he viewed as too openly gay. One man with whom I spoke said he was demoted from a job on the executive floor on which Griffin worked because Griffin, according to a trusted colleague of the man, didn’t like his speaking openly about being gay. He ultimately quit his job.
So the story of Schlapp not only isn’t surprising; it fits a profile. As I wrote last week, Schlapp has allowed CPAC to be a forum for anti-LGBTQ bigotry, and even continued for a while to ban the Log Cabin Republicans, the gay Republican group — even as he was perhaps making sexual advances on men all that time for all we know.
Since the staffer’s allegation broke, many have believed that others will come forward about Schlapp. But I’d caution against that necessarily happening — though I do hope it happens. While times have changed and victims of sexual assault are coming forward — particularly in the wake of “Me Too” — there is a lot of shame involved, especially among those who were vulnerable and who did not resist forcefully or speak up at the time. And there’s fear of repercussions.
And for some others, it may have been consensual sex, even if inappropriate because of the workplace power imbalance. They would not want to expose themselves, and actually may not have any issue with Schlapp and sex they had with him, his hypocrisy be damned.
The GOP and the conservative movement have become so devoid of morality that I’m not sure it would matter if others come forward anyway. If they could tolerate Donald Trump being accused of sexual assault by dozens of women, and George Santos fabricating his entire past life, why would Matt Schlapp making predatory advances against other men while on the job matter to them at all?