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The Making of a Gay American

He had smart ideas about my campaign, but I was only half-listening. Watching this handsome man talk—and show an interest in my political standing—totally mesmerized me. Nobody commits to memory the demographic standings of a politician halfway around the world as an academic exercise. I was flattered beyond anything I’d ever experienced before.

I assumed he was straight, but what was happening at this lunch if not flirting? I flirted back, a bit shamelessly. I can’t say I ever had a more electrifying first meeting—so dangerously carried out in a room full of politicians who could ruin us both.

Impulsively, I invited him to join my campaign, and he accepted with equal enthusiasm.

Golan came to New Jersey in early fall 2000, and immediately began directing my campaigning in Jewish strongholds around the state. Watching him work was as exhilarating as it was exhausting. And once or twice, climbing back into the campaign car after an endlessly long day wearing yarmulkes, I kicked off my shoes and spread out on the backseat, resting my feet across his knees. He didn’t seem to mind. With my eyes closed, I could allow myself to pretend I had it all: the governorship, the family, the male lover—and the final piece of the puzzle, love.

I craved love. For years sex had been all that was available to me. From the time in high school when I made up my mind to behave in public as though I were straight, I nonetheless carried on sexually with men. I visited bookstores in New York and New Jersey and had sex in the small booths there until I became too famous to risk discovery. I lurked around parkway rest stops, exchanging false names and intimacies with strangers. But there never was an emotional meaning to these trysts, even the few that were repeat engagements.

The only place where I had ever found any real pleasure in these encounters was in Washington, during my law-school years. At the juncture of Sixth and I Streets, just around the corner from Judiciary Square, there was an abandoned synagogue and a narrow alley leading to the long-forgotten gardens in back. Every night, rain or shine, this hidden pocket of Washington filled with men just like me—almost all of them wearing business suits and, on most of their left hands, proof that they’d made the same compromises I had. We were the power brokers and backroom operatives and future leaders of America. We just happened to be gay.

I felt as though I’d come upon a sanctuary—it was a churchlike, almost spiritual place. Moonlight squinted through the stained-glass windows into our garden, catching an inviting eye or a face stretched in ecstasy. I looked forward to my visits there, sometimes two or three a week. I quickly learned whom to approach and whose advance to wait for, when to move quickly, which posture said “no thanks” and which said “please.” One evening, as I stood on one of the metal platforms back there, a word came to me: liberated. Standing there in full sight of this group of men, I’d finally found a way to show who I was. I am finally free, I told myself. When of course I was just in a bigger cage.

How do you live with such shame? How do you accommodate your own revulsion with whom you have become? You do it by splitting in two. You rescue part of yourself, the half that stands for tradition and values and America, the part that looks like the family you came from, the part that is acceptably true. And you walk away from the other half the way you would abandon something spoiled. You take less and less responsibility for the abandoned half, until it seems to take on a life of its own—to become something you merely observe. And when you’re on the other side, in the shrubbery or behind the synagogue, you no longer recognize your decent self. Years later I realized I’d become both Gene and Phineas from A Separate Peace: the soul and the body, the person who tumbled from the tree and the person who made him fall.

On November 6, 2001, I won the election for governor of New Jersey by fourteen points. I remember thanking my supporters at the Hilton and letting the state troopers drive me over to Dina’s hospital room so I could give her the news myself. By this point we were expecting a child, and it was turning out to be a difficult pregnancy. Dina had gone into preterm labor—five days before the election, twelve weeks before her due date—and was ordered into bed for the duration. I went to her side Election Night, as I would every night for the next month, until our precious daughter Jacqueline was born by emergency C-section on December 7, still premature but healthy.