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BACKSTORY
How a Republican state legislator decided to come out

By John Byrne | RAW STORY Editor

On Mar. 31, blogACTIVE.com’s Mike Rogers placed a call to Minnesota state senator Paul Koering.

“He called my office and told my assistant that he was a reporter from Washington and wanted to talk to me about my video voyeurism bill,” Koering says.

The voyeurism bill the senator authored sought to increase fines for those videotaped or recorded without their consent. The bill had caught Rogers’ eye after he received photographs of Koering at a gay bar earlier that week.

“I thought, a lot of people are sending me information on this guy, maybe I ought to take a look,” Rogers says. Rogers is editor of RawStoryQ, an editorially independent franchise site of Raw Story Media, and runs blogACTIVE.com, a site which reports on what he believes is hypocrisy of political figures.


Photo: Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch
Used with permission.

“When I saw that it was a person from Washington I was very excited,” Koering recalls. “I immediately thought: national news on this bill.”

“I started to explain to him about the bill, what the intent was,” he continues. “He proceeded to tell me, under your bill, if I said I had some pictures of you at Bang, a gay bar… would that be illegal?”

Koering says he was speechless.

“Somebody was sitting here in my office, and I was trying not to say something stupid,” he notes. “Finally I had to ask this person to step out.”

Koering and Rogers continued their banter until at one point Rogers asked, “Are you gay?”

The senator said he didn’t think it was any of Rogers’ business. Rogers said he was recording the call.

“I thought about hanging up,” the Minnesotan says. “And so I put him on hold because I didn’t know what to do, and so I went over to our chief of staff’s office a couple of doors down from me, and he was not there. It gave me a minute and a half to cool off, so I got back on my phone, and I said, ‘Mike, yeah, I’m gay, ask me whatever you want to ask me. If that’s what you want to do, it’s fine with me.’”

After admitting he was gay, the senator says he and Rogers had an amicable conversation.

“We actually had at that point I think a very civil conversation,” Koering recalls. “I actually could see that once I opened up my heart like I normally do I could see that I felt that he thought” similar things.

Koering told Rogers of an internal party discussion around the time was freshly elected. He said that he had stood up to another member of the Republican caucus who wanted to try to abolish the 1993 revision of the state’s Human Rights Act that included protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“He said to me, I don’t really know if there’s a story here,” the senator says. “That’s kind of where we left it.”

“He did what far too few people do in our country,” Rogers says. “He took the hard road and did the hard decision to do what he think was right.”

Rogers reflected on the call on blogACTIVE on Apr. 4 without mentioning Koering by name or even the state in which he was elected to serve.

“As the legislator and I talked it became more and more clear the [sic] me that this individual was one of the many examples of a gay member of the GOP who should not be reported on,” the Washington blogger wrote. “Like every other story, I review the totality of the matter and decide with my advisors if the story is worth reporting. In this case, like so many others, the file is closed and no story is written.”

“Why?” he added. “Because blogACTIVE.com does not report on every closeted politician from one party or the other.”

Koering says he read Rogers’ post and was “pleasantly surprised.”

“I’ve got to say that I was pleasantly surprised by that, and I think it—honestly it made me think some more about who I am as a person and how much does this job mean to me,” he told RAW STORY. “Does it mean that much to me that I’m going to deny who I am?”

Several days later, on Apr. 7, Minnesota Republican state Sen. Michele Bachman moved to bring a measure allowing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to go to the Senate floor. The move was made despite the fact that measure had not been approved by the appropriate committees. Outside the Capitol, gay and lesbian activists were marching outside the capitol for equal rights.

Koering voted no—the lone Republican to do so—and along with opposition from 34 Democrats, the measure failed. The senator said he cried all the way home.

“I left the Capitol and I immediately started for home—it’s a two and half hour drive,” he recalls. “I literally cried all the way.”

That night, the senator called Rogers.

“I said hey, I voted against the marriage amendment and we talked about that and we talked several more times over the weekend,” Koering says. “I’ve got a lot of gay friends but they’re not really interested in politics like I am so it was kind of refreshing to talk to Mike.”

“So I got back to the Capitol on Monday,” he continues, “and the Associated Press reporter kind of said, if you ever want to talk about your orientation… and then the word was here that we were going to be taking another vote on the marriage amendment this week.”

“At that point I just thought, I’ve gone as far as I can go, I’ve just got to tell my constituents, you know what, I’m gay, let’s just put it out there and be done with it, and hopefully I can put it behind me and get on to work that I want to get done here.”

Koering isn’t as cheerful about those who were circulating pictures of him taken at a Minneapolis gay bar. In the Minneapolis Star Tribune Thursday, he said of pressure from those who had pressed the photographs on reporters, “They can do, and I’m sure they will continue to do, whatever they want, which I think is a sad state of affairs.”

Of Rogers, the Minnesotan is kinder.

“I guess people can be critical of Mike, and say that he’s doing something that shouldn’t be done, but in my case, he didn’t out me,” he says. “Did I like the way he confronted me? Not necessarily, but was it true. So why would a politician be running from the truth?”

He cautions Rogers, however, not to lob questions unnecessarily.

“I still think that Mike has a job to not just go out and willy-nilly ruin people’s lives or careers,” he asserts. “I think he has to realize as blogs become more and more important or are more relevant to the political process that he’s got to be careful that he doesn’t just go and ruin somebody who is a good person. He’s got to be judicious on how he goes about this and do his homework very well and have his ducks in a row before he confronts somebody.”

Yet Koering, unlike many in his party—and those at gay and lesbian rights lobby groups in Washington—told RAW STORY he supports Rogers’ efforts to report on gay politicians who use their positions of power to thwart gay rights.

“I do believe it is appropriate when you have a politician who is a hypocrite,” the senator says. “Somebody who is possibly in the closet and uses their bully pulpit or their position to bash gay people or to make gay people’s lives difficult in their position and are in essence leading a double life—people like that need to be exposed for the hypocrite that they are.

“Those people need to be exposed for who they are because they are a very poor excuse for a public official, as far as I’m concerned,” he adds. “We don’t need hypocrites in government. Government is too screwed up as it is.”

Koering declines to criticize Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman and Rep. David Dreier (R-CA), two prominent members of his party who have been outed and are accused of working against gay rights.

“I don’t know those people and I haven’t followed those people, so I can’t speak with intelligence on what they do,” he says, “but it’s just my opinion that if politicians engage in what I call hypocritical behavior… and then are going out and engaging in the same behavior that they’re railing against, those people need to be exposed for who they are. That’s just not right.

“I sometimes find that the people that you find who are hollering the loudest, and who are putting people down the most, are the ones that have the most to hide,” he continues. “And they’re so uncomfortable in their own skin that they have to tear everybody else down to make themselves feel good.”

But as for “people who are gay and are just in office to do the work of their constituents and they’re not bashing gay people,” he says, “I don’t think anybody has the right to out people like that.”

Asked whether Rogers’ initial call prompted him to come out, Koering says no. He notes that the day of the amendment vote was the second anniversary of his mother’s death, and that it was “gay and lesbian day” at the Capitol, with activists lobbying outside.

“I don’t think Mike’s call made me make the decision to come out,” he states. “It was starting with Mike, it was the vote that I took on the marriage amendment, being that it all coincided—it was just almost like—it was almost like it was all meant to be.”

Did he feel torn after voting against the rest of his party?

“I actually feel relieved that I voted the way I did,” he says. “I feel like I made the right vote, and I wouldn’t change it, and I feel like I did do the right thing. And if in doing the right thing I get unelected, I guess that’s fine with me; I can live with that.”

Both Rogers and Koering praise each other, saying that though they are a world apart on some issues, they find common ground on issues surrounding gay civil rights.

Koering, a stalwart conservative, sponsored bills attempting to make English Minnesota’s official language and attempted to name a state building after President Ronald Reagan, according to the Star Tribune. He’s also a deer hunter.

Rogers, meanwhile, has been active in groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and ACT UP, a gay rights group many see as radical.

But this doesn’t seem to deter the two from seeing eye-to-eye.

“Even though Mike and I politically don’t agree,” Koering says, “being that we’re both gay I feel kind of—I don’t know if kinship is the right word—that we have something in common. We’re both gay and we can’t change that, and all we want to do is live our lives. And in talking with Mike, I feel like I’m a good judge of character, I think that the guy is a compassionate person.”

“Paul Koering is my brother and on behalf of the millions of out lesbian sisters and gay brothers, I welcome Paul into our family,” Rogers says. “Are there disagreements? Are there family discussions we need to have? Without a doubt. And those discussions on the issues that are important to America will come.”

“But for the moment,” he continues, “the only appropriate focus on this story is the heroic steps taken by Senator Paul Koering in his journey to bring the truth about gay and lesbian Americans to the most important people in Paul’s job: the constituents of his district. He has served them well. He should be proud.”

Rogers saves his vitriol for the leadership of the Republican gay rights lobby Log Cabin Republicans. Koering told RAW STORY that he has had good conversations with members of the group. But he added that when the group’s president—a former state legislator himself—called him and then allegedly would not return his calls, he got frustrated.

“If I was the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans and you’re trying to promote gay Republicans and some legislator calls and says 'I’m gay,' I guess I would have kept calling every three minutes order to talk to that person,” he said.

Chris Barron, political director for the Log Cabin group, cheers Koering’s decision to come out, though he disputes his version of events.

In a statement to the blog BoiFromTroy (and verified with Barron), the Log Cabin Republican praises the senator “for his courageous decision to come out and for his courageous opposition to the marriage amendment.”

“When I spoke to the senator earlier this year I made it clear that we at Log Cabin appreciated his voice and his courage as an elected gay official,” he says. “After that conversation, we traded emails and he made it clear in those emails, and conversation, that he appreciated me taking the time to talk to him.”

“I also put him in touch with our president, Patrick Guerriero,” he continues. “Patrick spoke to the senator, after a series of back and forth voicemails, and actually offered to go meet with him in Minnesota this year. We wish him well, are willing to work with him in building an inclusive GOP, and again thank him for his courage.”

Rogers says the senator’s story is an endorsement of his work. He believes that if the Log Cabin Republicans had been more engaged (the group opposes outing), they would have likely told Koering to keep away from him. On blogACTIVE, Rogers has called on the group’s director to resign.

“Paul Koering is the first to publicly state without my prompting the unquestionable contributions my work has made to our community, and this endorsement by the senator is in the shadow of the abject failure of the Log Cabin Republicans to appropriately address the most basic tenets of their mission,” he quips.

Barron strongly disagrees, and says he believes Rogers unfairly targets those he doesn’t like.

“We oppose outing period,” Barron told RAW STORY Wednesday. “So far this outing campaign has not changed one vote. Every moment spent calling an office to find out whether or not someone is gay is a call not spent encouraging a legislator to support pro-gay legislation or encouraging a legislator not to vote for anti-gay legislation…We need to be calling people to support our families. We don’t need to be calling to engage in some sort of personal battle.”

Log Cabin Republicans are not the only gay rights lobby to oppose outing. Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay rights group, says publicly that they are against outing, though their new president recently declined to criticize outing campaigns. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (where Rogers previously worked as a fundraiser) does not publicly oppose outing of politicians who work against gay rights.

For Barron, Rogers work is personal.

“I’ve gotten calls from friends of mine who are lowly staffers in tears from the things Mike Rogers has done,” he adds. “It’s clear that he is not simply targeting folks who have authority, who have the ability to actually set policy; he’s targeting anybody he doesn’t like.”

Chris Crain, editor of the Washington D.C. gay newspaper, The Blade, criticized Rogers in a RAW STORY interview earlier this year. While Crain says that he supports reporting on gay politicians who publicly thwart gay rights, he calls Rogers’ phone calls “badgering” and “harassment.”

“I don’t think Mike is the media,” he said. “I think he’s an activist, and using the cover of journalism to do what he does—and that’s his right, he can do what he wants—but I think it sullies the name of journalism when he does it.”

Rogers dismisses such criticism, calling it “slanderous.” He says he knows his style is aggressive, but he sees his involvement in Koering’s coming out as a vindication of his work and proof that his detractors are derelict in their responsibilities to advance gay rights.

“Senator Paul Koering’s voluntary coming out story is an indictment of every senior staff member of the Log Cabin’s national office and the leadership of the Minnesota Log Cabin Republican chapter,” he says.

“Paul Koering credited the thousands of activists outside the Minnesota state house in motivating him and his personal reflections prior to casting his vote,” he adds. “If there is one lesson that every lesbian and gay American can take from this entire story, is that the next time you’re sitting at home and wondering, should I go on that lobby day, should I call my legislator, should I get involved in my community, let the story of the courage of Sen. Paul Koering speak for itself. These rallies and the participation of gay and lesbian Americans is not an option, it’s an absolute must if our community is to move forward.”

Koering is more reserved.

“I don’t think that society is ready for saying that two men can be together as a marriage,” he says. “I don’t think that society is ready for that.”

Asked how he would vote if Minnesota’s Defense of Marriage Act (which prohibits the state from recognizing gay marriages) came up for a vote today, he said he couldn’t be sure.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I think that I would have to hear from both sides and I would have to hear why …I certainly would want to hear the debate on this and talk about it and see if society is ready for this.”

“I think some of the gay activists will be upset with me for this, but sometimes I think an agenda is pushed so far and so fast that people have no alternative but to push back,” he adds. “And I think that sometimes you have to move slowly.”

But Koering says Rogers’ call—which at first put him on his guard—was a blessing in disguise.

“I think in Mike calling me what turned out to be chunk of coal kind of turned into a diamond,” he quips. “Because I think it started out very awkward and I was on the defense, but it really turned out to be something good.”

Editor’s note: Given that RAW STORY has a franchise agreement with Mike Rogers for RawStoryQ, I considered dropping this story altogether to obviate any appearance of conflict of interest. Ultimately, I decided the right and desire of readers to read the full story outweighed my personal reservations.

Article originally published Apr. 14, 2005.

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