05/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Massa Can't See Straight and Why It Matters

I've never been a big fan of the avuncular Larry King, but I give him credit for asking Eric Massa the question on everybody's mind but somehow on nobody's lips, i.e. "Are you gay?" Massa's non-response was about as convincing as Ricky Martin's -- but asking it was far less prurient and far more pertinent of a politician than a pop-star.

Of course it shouldn't matter if Eric Massa is gay. It shouldn't matter if he was straight either. But both the elected and the electorate have made it matter. Spouses and children are trotted out routinely, used as political assets to testify to wholesome family values. America accepts, even insists on the idea that family is an extension of self. In my ideal world the voter wouldn't even know whether a candidate was even married, much less gay or straight. But that's not the world we live in.

Convincing yourself you are heterosexual when you are not is like wearing sunglasses in a dark room, or writing with your right hand when you are left-handed. You can certainly pull it off as a practical matter -- God knows millions of homosexuals do in the United States and certainly the world. But it entails a perpetual emotional and psychological exertion; the submission to a voice that insists you don't really feel what you feel, or that it doesn't matter that you do feel what you feel.

Here's the big problem with closet cases like Eric Massa, Larry Craig, and Roy Ashburn: living a lie profoundly affects their ability to do the job they're elected to do. In Ashburn's case, it resulted in a virulent anti-gay voting record, but it goes deeper. Rationalizing the closet requires the delusion that you are somehow fundamentally different than others. Other gays need to act on their sexual attraction; but you can resist; or if you can't resist, this somehow doesn't constitute a violation of your marital vows. Whatever the tortured reasoning involved, it requires a diminution of empathy. If you convince yourself the rules of human behavior are somehow not the same for you as they are for everyone else, then how can that not hopelessly distort the judgments you make about what is good and bad policy?

Eric Massa is mostly an aberration in the relative blatancy of his latency. With a "straight" face, he can report having come on to a masturbating roommate in the Navy, and then a few days later, suggest we ask his wife about his sexuality. Massa may have an extra layer of crazy, but all closeted men live in a crippling psychological straightjacket.

If you're not out, come out. If you aren't willing to come out, then at least don't get married and for heaven's sake, don't run for office. If you can't represent yourself well you will not represent the people well.