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The Making of a Gay American

Thirty-four days after I was elected governor of New Jersey, I began a secret affair with an aide named Golan Cipel. It destroyed my career, ruined my marriage, and helped me discover who I really am.

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I ’ve never been much for self-revelation. In two decades of public life, I always approached the limelight with extreme caution. Not that I kept my personal life off-limits; rather, the personal life I put on display was a blend of fact and fiction. I invented overlapping narratives about who I was, and contrived backstories that played better not just in the ballot box but in my own mind. And then, to the best of my ability, I tried to be the man in those stories.

In this way I’m not at all unique. Inauthenticity is endemic in American politics today. The political backrooms where I spent much of my career were just as benighted as my personal life, equally crowded with shadowy strangers and compromises, truths I hoped to deny. I lived not in one closet but in many.

Ironically, the dividing experience of my sexuality helped me thrive in that environment. As I climbed the electoral ladder—from state assemblyman to mayor of Woodbridge and finally to governor of New Jersey—political compromises came easy to me because I’d learned how to keep a part of myself innocent of them. I kept a steel wall around my moral and sexual instincts—protecting them, I thought, from the threats of the real world. This gave me a tremendous advantage in politics, if not in my soul. The true me, my spiritual core, slipped further and further from reach.

There were moments when the ripping misery of this life became too great, moments when I thought about “becoming gay” and all that that entails. One of these moments came after I lost my first race for governor to Christine Todd Whitman in 1997. I thought to myself: You’re at a fork in the road. You could give this up and be yourself. This is your last chance.

But I felt compelled to keep running for governor. I’d lost by a mere 27,000 votes. My political potential was enormous. I think I decided that my ambition would give me more pleasure than integration, than true love. Coming to this realization made me feel not suicidal, exactly, but morose. It’s hard to describe how it feels to surrender your soul to your ambition.

Among other things, I was anxious about marrying Dina. I had met her at a campaign event—she was an uncommonly beautiful 31-year-old blonde in a red double-breasted suit. When the event was over I walked her out to her car and kissed her. I’m still not sure what made me do it. Loneliness, I suppose. Maybe she just seemed like the perfect politician’s wife; it might have been that self-serving. Our romantic life was troubled from the start, but I loved her deeply as a friend and companion. And I did believe I was offering her some things she truly coveted: the stability of marriage, the prospect of a loving family, a chance to share a life of public service, political excitement in spades.

In November 1999, I won reelection as mayor of Woodbridge by a landslide. And the following February, on Valentine’s Day, I slid an engagement ring on Dina’s finger. All the while, I never stopped campaigning for governor.

Three weeks after I proposed to Dina, I went to Israel as part of a delegation of 750 elected officials, politicians, and cultural leaders organized by the United Jewish Federation of MetroWest. The trip, called Mission 2000, was billed as a chance for us to open our eyes to Israel’s significance in world affairs.

One afternoon, we took a bus trip to a local arts center in Rishon Lezion, a rather featureless city just outside Tel Aviv. We were greeted there by the mayor, but it was his 32-year-old communications director, a former Israeli naval officer, who caught my eye. That’s too casual a way to put it. My attraction to him was immediate and intense, and apparently reciprocated. Our eyes met over and over before we were introduced. “This is Golan Cipel,” said the mayor. “He is familiar with New Jersey—for a number of years he worked at the Israeli Embassy in Manhattan.”

We shook hands for a long time. “I followed your campaign very closely,” Golan said. “Twenty-seven thousand votes is a very narrow margin.” He went on to describe my strengths among various constituencies. I was startled by his knowledge of my campaign.

At lunch I made sure to sit next to him. “Democrats take Jews for granted. It’s a powerful constituency. You have to develop relationships with them,” he said. “You got a good percentage of the overall Jewish vote. But if you’d gotten even a small number of Orthodox votes, and all of the Reform Jews, you would be governor today.”


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