“If an outing happens in the forest and no one hears it, is it an outing?” wonders gay activist Mike Rogers. It’s a question that he and outing pioneer Michelangelo Signorile have been asking since September 22, when they outed Mark Buse, longtime Senate chief of staff to Republican presidential candidate John McCain. With the economy tanking, Sarah Palin on the attack, Lindsay Lohan “going lesbian” and Clay Aiken making the cover of People the day after the Buse revelation, you may not have heard about it. If you heard of Buse at all, it was likely for the $460,000 in lobbying fees he earned in 2003 and 2004 from troubled loan giant Freddie Mac (not to be confused with the more than $2 million McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, received over the years for work he and his lobbying firm did for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as recently as August). On political Web sites ranging from Daily Kos, Eschaton and Firedoglake all the way to the gay-centered Towleroad, JoeMyGod and Pam’s House Blend, Buse has been Topic A — especially afterSignorile provided on-the-record quotes from an ex-lover of Buse’s, Brian Davis. Rogers even went to Buse’s Washington office to personally deliver the latest Roy Cohn Award for most harm done to the gay community by a gay man.

“Did the gay readers of my blog go, ‘Oh, my God, I live in D.C. and I can’t believe he’s gay’” Rogers asks. “No. But One News Now, an online news service that’s about as right wing as you can get, was quite upset, and they’re hardly the only ones.”

Patrick Sammon, president of the gay conservative Log Cabin Republicans (which decried the outing as “the politics of personal destruction”), sees things differently: “You can’t out someone who has been openly gay for many, many years. This is silly.”

But to Rogers, Busegate echoes the situation that no less a gay eminence than Oscar Wilde outlined in The Importance of Being Earnest, whose hero, Jack Worthing, dryly remarks, “Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and the cigarette case was given to me in the country.”

Clearly we’ve come a long way from the night ACT-UP founder Larry Kramer confronted Terry Dolan, head of the powerful anti-gay National Conservative Political Action Committee, in a D.C. gay bar and loudly accused him of “fucking us by night and fucking with us by day!” In another D.C. bar, activist Michael Petrelis tangled with Republican Congressman Steve Gunderson, who said, “I am out. I’m in this bar, aren’t I?” To which Petrelis replied, “That’s not enough.” Gunderson began to vote pro-gay shortly afterward. Dolan, meanwhile, died of AIDS.

Nowadays, it’s the ’net rather than the bars where gays hook up, particularly on a site called Manhunt, which ran into a hornet’s nest when it was learned that its owners had contributed to McCain’s campaign.

“Manhunt is inarguably responsible for a complete redrawing of the social and, literally, physical landscape of gay culture,” says JoeMyGod’s Joe Jervis. “If I were under 25 and living in the heartland, it would be a godsend. The effect it’s had on the decline of gay bars is incredible. Eight out of 10 of the big cities no longer have a Saturday-night dance club. Even the circuit scene has been affected by Manhunt.”

But love it or hate it, the personal became political with the revelation on Towleroad of Manhunt’s McCain donation. Many threatened to cancel their Manhunt memberships because of it. Consequently, Manhunt’s founder claimed he was retiring — but then didn’t. Likewise, the McCain campaign said it was returning the money — but didn’t.

“Senator McCain voted no on the Federal Marriage Amendment [limiting marriage to a man and a woman], the most important issue of the last 10 years,” claims Log Cabin’s Sammon. “He’s the only candidate in this race who has paid a price for making a vote that benefited gay and lesbian people.”

Signorile is unimpressed.

“Log Cabin claims [McCain] didn’t believe in making gay people second-class citizens. But that’s not what he said. He said we don’t need [the amendment] right now, but if the Defense of Marriage Act doesn’t work, maybe I’ll vote for it. With Sarah Palin,” he adds, “there was an anti-gay bill [in Alaska] that would have taken away domestic partnership benefits for government employees. She vetoed it because the Alaska Supreme Court [essentially said she had to]. She didn’t veto it because she likes gay people.

“You want to talk about the psychology of gay Republicans?” Signorile continues. “These are people who grew up in Republican families. It is a huge thing for them to come on and lurch away from that. Instead, they try to adhere to it. They’re Republicans before they’re gay.”

“It’s total cognitive dissonance,” says Joe Jervis. “Buse and his partner have an open relationship, which is fine. But John McCain wants to repeal gay marriage in California, he’s supporting the anti-gay-marriage amendment in his home state of Arizona, he’s against the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,’ he’s voted against hate crimes laws, he’s voted against ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act]. He always votes against LGBT rights, and his No. 1 man is an out gay man.How can someone like Mark Buse go to work every day for this man?”

Sammon sees no problem with that — or the party’s explicitly anti-gay platform.

“Two days after it’s passed, the platform is put in a drawer for the next four years. The focus should be on candidates. We’ve had a number of discussions with Senator McCain, and I know we’re not going to agree with him on every issue, but he’s always demonstrated a willingness to engage in discussion. I should also point out that strategically for our movement, I think it would be a huge mistake to put all our chips on one side of the table.”

So has Log Cabin made an outreach to gay Democrats?

“We don’t have the credibility to talk to Democrats, just as all the LGBT organizations don’t have credibility to talk to Republicans, because they’re not Republicans. If I’m a kookie leftist ranting against the war in Iraq and against free trade, I have no credibility to talk to a Republican about any issue.”

Has Mark Buse discussed gay issues with McCain?

“I don’t know” Sammon says.

And since Buse declined to answer inquiries for this article, it’s quite unlikely we’ll get an answer to that question — unless the “Jack” in Buse is willing to say what the “Ernest” won‘t.

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