Missing in the story of the John Weaver scandal: Stoking homophobia for decades

As the Lincoln Project co-founder sexually harassed young men over the years, he was working to elect anti-gay politicians

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Like many, I’ve followed the story of Lincoln Project co-founder and long-time Republican political strategist John Weaver with interest and concern. The Lincoln Project, the Never Trump group of Republicans and ex-Republicans, made a big splash over the last four years, and certainly had some very pointed and effective anti-Trump ads that many of us shared. But clearly there was a lot going on that wasn’t good.

Forensic News’ Scott Stedman broke the story about co-founder Weaver last month, revealing Weaver made sexually-suggestive comments to at least 30 young men with whom he had professional or potentially professional relationships — like Stedman himself — “and in some cases, sent unsolicited pictures of his penis, flew political ambitious men to his location for massages, and offered jobs in exchange for sexual relations.”

Weaver first tried damage control, going to a Beltway-friendly publication, Axios, with a statement in which he said he wouldn’t be returning from a leave he took last year. He positioned himself as a married man who was closeted and tortured about his sexuality for years, apologizing for “inappropriate” though “consensual” exchanges and interactions:

The truth is that I’m gay. And that I have a wife and two kids who I love. My inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.

There’s validity to his statement for sure, as there’s been an all too common story about homophobia in our culture: men living proscribed heterosexual lives yet seeking intimacy with other men, unable to meet in openly gay settings, and often engaging in abusive workplace behavior. They use their power and influence to coerce or pressure other men over whom they have authority or who they view as vulnerable. The closet combined with power indeed corrupts, and I’ve written a lot about that in books and articles over the years.

The internalized homophobia and difficulties men like Weaver experience, of course, doesn’t excuse the behavior. So if Weaver thought he would get sympathy after his narrowly-focused, tepid apology, he was mistaken. Instead, the story blew up further, with still more men coming forward, some of them saying Weaver groomed them while they were underage.

And the scandal shined a light not only on the toxic workplace at the Lincoln Project — and who else among its founders knew what and when — but also on much of the tens of millions of dollars the group raised going to companies controlled by its leaders, and exposing dark money connections. Resignations flew fast and furiously as the group began unraveling, with calls for it to be shut down.

But what few in the media have focused on — and what Weaver surely didn’t apologize for — was Weaver’s decades-long stoking of homophobia by helping to elect anti-LGBTQ politicians who promoted hatred and bowed to virulently anti-LGBTQ religious bigots.

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Weaver worked for anti-gay Texas congressman (later U.S. Senator) Phil Gramm in the early years, and went on to work for him in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1996. For a decade he was senior advisor to Senator John McCain, working on his presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2008. Later he was a strategist for Ohio’s Governor John Kasich as he pursued a presidential bid in 2015.

Defenders will say that Democrats opposed marriage equality in years past, too — and that is true — but to say the parties were equivalent is delusional. Democrats supported anti-discrimination statutes, domestic partnership benefits for LGBT people, federal protections and many other pro-LGBTQ initiatives in the years that the Republican men Weaver worked for were courting religious bigots who still supported conversion therapy, open discrimination, sodomy laws and criminalizing homosexuality.

And Weaver was gay.

These Republican politicians he worked for may seem moderate today — Kasich has been a vocal Never Trumper and McCain came out in opposition to Trump’s ban on transgender troops before his death in 2018 — but they laid the groundwork for the party of Trump. Can we please not forget McCain was willing to have Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the presidency?

More than that, McCain, in the years Weaver worked for him, accepted the support of anti-LGBTQ evangelical leaders, making promises to follow through on their agenda. After having previously stood up against them — in 2000 — he became their darling in his 2008 presidential campaign. A New York Times editorial — “McCain’s Agents of Intolerance” — took him to task that year for accepting the endorsements of extremists like the Rev. John Hagee, who McCain eventually had to disavow as more bile from Hagee’s past surfaced that year.

McCain, while he laudably voted against the Defense of Marriage Act 1996 and opposed a federal marriage amendment later — both on federal grounds, desiring to leave it to states — still opposed marriage equality, even as all Democrats and many Republicans evolved, right up to his death.

McCain fought vociferously against allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military, not just during Bill Clinton’s years in dealing with the issue, but when President Obama moved to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” by spearheading a bill in Congress that ultimately was successful but which McCain did everything to thwart — going backward on evolution he’d actually previously made on the issue.

McCain’s moderate change for the better in the early Trump years — when Trump became a threat to so many establishment Republicans — doesn’t excuse Weaver from years of supporting McCain while he danced with anti-LGBTQ extremists. Similarly, Weaver joined the presidential bid of Ohio Governor John Kasich as chief strategist in 2015, working for a man who’d at the time and in the few years prior said ugly things about LGBTQ people and backed abhorrent polices.

In 1998, Kasich said on CBS, “I don’t approved of the gay lifestyle.” Ten years later, in 2008, he repeated it, agreeing with evangelical leader Rick Warren, saying, “I don’t approve of [the gay lifestyle] either.” How did Weaver feel about working for someone who said that? How could Weaver work for someone who said that?

Kasich slammed the state of California on Fox News in 2006 for moving to teach the contributions of LGBT people in history in California schools: “They’re going to teach this in a book? I mean, what are they doing here… I’ll tell you something. It never ceases to amaze me.”

Kasich attacked gay couples from back when he was in Congress in the ‘90s — repeatedly voting against domestic partnership benefits for gay couples in Washington DC — and backed Ohio’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2010. And in 2014 —the year before Weaver went to work for him — he backed efforts to keep Ohio from recognizing same-sex marriages of out of state couples.

Perhaps Kasich was privately more accepting — he attended a same-sex wedding in 2015 — but private acceptance doesn’t matter if you’re publicly engaging in condemnation. In fact, he explained his attending a gay wedding by telling the Wall Street Journal, “I have friends who are gay, OK? They know how I feel about this, I’m fine…but my position has been clear forever.”

Kasich, like McCain, eventually tried to put the issue behind him in recent years, as the battle had been lost and backing virulently anti-LGBTQ polices only made one seem in line with Trump. But through the years that he pushed bigotry, Weaver was helping him do it, as he courted anti-LGBTQ voters.

As I noted, I’ve covered closeted gay people in power, and how their closets and their own self-loathing often have them not only backing those who are anti-gay but also sexually harassing vulnerable men among them. That was a major theme in my almost 30-year-old bestseller, “Queer in America: Sex, the Media, and the Closets of Power,” looking at powerful closeted politicians, including some in Congress.

The media was, and often still is, an enabler in this dysfunction, refusing to look at this issue even when they know — and even allowing sexual harassment and abuse to go on — unwilling to expose hypocrisy for fear of coming under fire. (Kudos to Scott Stedman and people like him who push this to the forefront of the media). And even now that Weaver has come out, there’s been no accounting in much of the media for how he promoted homophobia by helping to elect politicians who embraced anti-LGBTQ bigots and policies.

As for Weaver himself, he owes an apology not just to the men he harassed and groomed, but to the entire LGBTQ community for empowering those who were hellbent on the demise of his own kind.