By finally acknowledging after years of evasion that he is gay, Mark Foley has altered the debate among conservatives and gays over his overtures to teenage male interns in Congress.
Some conservatives have said House of Representatives Republican leaders knew previously of Foley's sexual orientation and were too lax in investigating his actions for fear of seeming bigoted. Some gays have blamed Foley's personal problems on being so long in the closet while representing a party hostile to many gay-rights causes.
"This is the problem with the closet: it's a terrible place to be, and it's got to be worse if you're a Republican," said Democratic Representative Barney Frank, who in 1987 became the first member of Congress to voluntarily make his homosexuality public.
As far back as 1996, two years after his election to Congress, Foley was "outed" by a gay newspaper. Another gay publication ran a similar story in 2003, prompting a Foley news conference at which he denounced the report but again declined to discuss his sexual orientation.
On Tuesday, four days after resigning from Congress because of explicit e-mails to male pages, Foley acknowledged through his lawyer that he is gay. He coupled that disclosure with assertions that he had been molested by a clergyman while a teenager.
Some conservative leaders, who have been pressing the Republicans to oppose gay-rights measures, seized on Foley's disclosure to criticize the House Republican leadership.
"They discounted or downplayed earlier reports concerning Foley's behavior -- probably because they did not want to appear `homophobic,"' said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "The Foley scandal shows what happens when political correctness is put ahead of protecting children."
Such comments angered leaders of national gay-rights groups, who said Foley's behavior was reprehensible -- but should not become grist for harsher attitudes toward gays.
Conservative leaders "continue to try and dodge responsibility for their cover up, instead opting to do what they do best by blaming gays," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "It is completely unacceptable, regardless of party or sexual orientation, for an adult to engage in this kind of behavior with a minor."
The National Youth Advocacy Coalition, which represents gay and lesbian youth, said Foley should be investigated and, if warranted, prosecuted.
"Some may believe that this is a gay issue. It is not," the coalition said. "This is an issue about protecting children from those who seek to do them harm."
There are now three openly gay members of Congress -- Frank, Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin and Republican Representative Jim Kolbe, who is not seeking re-election.
Frank predicted on Wednesday that the Foley scandal, plus Kolbe's departure, will create a difficult atmosphere for any gays, closeted or not, seeking to remain active nationally as Republican politicians.
"Now they're viewed as causing trouble," Frank said in a telephone interview. "I think you can see a purge coming."
Conservative gay columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote that he was among many in Washington who had heard that Foley was gay yet unwilling to come out.
"What the closet does to people -- the hypocrisies it fosters, the pathologies it breeds -- is brutal," Sullivan wrote on his Web site. "From what I've read, Foley is another example of this destructive and self-destructive pattern for which the only cure is courage and honesty."