The Anthony Weiner story has provoked closed-minded responses from even the most staunchly open-minded liberals. Conversations among friends, colleagues, and pundits reveal a strong consensus around shaky premises: "His recidivism shows his poor judgment," or, "Only the pathologically narcissistic send naked pictures to strangers." None of these assertions holds up under even the mildest scrutiny, however, and Weiner's plight thus highlights the cognitive dissonance around sex that still predominates in the minds of the American public. Our animosity toward Weiner is reminiscent of the homophobia that, until recently, ran wild in politics, turning one's private sex life into fodder for public debate. Has the gay rights movement taught us nothing?
It seems surprising given recent changes in public opinion concerning sexual minorities, but the Anthony Weiner case reveals that a strong sex-negative bias still pervades our public consciousness. Many have tried to explain his actions in terms of mental illness or addiction, indicating a widely held belief that Weiner's sexting makes him a pervert or sexual deviant. This urge to pathologize his proclivities stems from the same animus that underlies homophobia: the prejudice that atypical or unabashed sexual behavior must surely be immoral or unhealthy.
The sad irony of the Weiner saga is that the same individuals who would argue that Weiner should be free to love another man also call him a degenerate for indulging in dirty talk. We have managed in record time to transform our opinions on homosexuality without upending any of our deep-seated taboos concerning sexual behavior. Though the set of acceptable sexual partners has expanded, the set of acceptable sexual acts has not.
Statements by actress Kristin Chenoweth exemplify this contradiction of advocating sexual freedom for one group while judging the sexual habits of another. Well known as a passionate champion of gay rights, Chenoweth has written letters in defense of gay actors, publicly professed her belief in marriage equality, and even won an award from GLAAD in 2011. Nonetheless, she recently released a new version of the song "Popular" from Wicked, with lyrics rewritten to chastise Weiner's sexual behavior. Her parody scolds him: "You wanna be the mayor? Stop actin' like a big ol' whore."
Such an imperative to rein in one's sexuality recalls the all-too-recent past (i.e., Jim McGreevey) where private homosexual behavior -- that had no bearing on job performance -- led to dismissals and resignations. The link between sexual restraint and political decision making is tenuous at best. Mr. Weiner's job as a politician hardly implies celibacy, and the containment of one's sexual urges has no direct analogue in the duties of a politician.
Anthony Weiner faces an unfair trial in the court of public opinion. Yes, he made the same "mistake" twice, but it was only a mistake by virtue of its unpopularity, not by virtue of the crimeless impropriety of his sexual exploits. He should never have faced a choice between his loins and his ambitions; the obstacle was put there by a puritanical public whose sexual conservatism is perverse in its fetish for restraint. To expect him to refrain from further forays (or to take them off the record) is to ignore the fundamental indecency of asking Weiner to closet himself.
That sexual propriety might still be a requirement for public office reveals the true failure of the gay rights movement. A struggle that called on the public to judge us by the content of our character rather than the contours of our fantasies allowed itself to be narrowed into a statement specifically about same-sex attraction. Hence, gays were assimilated into the heterostream as another protected class without many of the higher learnings about the nature of social exclusion, the perversity of repression, and ultimately, the right to structure one's sex life, one's family, and one's personal life in accordance with one's own unique orientation. This message of liberation embedded in the gay rights movement does not apply merely to homosexuals; it is much more far-reaching. Freedom of sexuality is the natural complement to freedom of religion: Those aspects of life that are most personal ought not to be the province of the state.
We have yet to internalize the lessons of feminism, the sexual revolution, and the gay rights movement, which have all made obvious that sexual conformity is not a yardstick by which character ought to be judged. Rather than gawking at Weiner, we should ask ourselves why we care. Only when we remove these superficial qualifications for public office can we begin to evaluate candidates on more meaningful bases that might actually predict the degree to which they would succeed as public servants.