CONGRESSMAN Barney Frank paid for sex with Steve Gobie, a convicted prostitute, cocaine user, and producer of obscene materials involving children. After Mr. Frank hired him as a personal aide, Mr. Gobie sold sex from the congressman's Washington apartment. With other scandals, these events have raised questions about ethics among public servants. The Massachusetts congressman ascribes his conduct to well-intentioned bad judgment, an effort to reform Gobie. ``Stupid,'' he says, but adds that House ethics rules do not prohibit stupidity.
Some gay-rights groups have used his problem to charge the public with injustice toward homosexuals. Political spokesmen have insisted that Frank's private behavior is irrelevant to his service in Congress.
Robert Bray of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a homosexual PAC, says, ``Our problem is we don't have equal rights. We are expected to conform to a strict code of behavior set by heterosexuals, and we receive acute screening because our sexual orientation continues to be controversial.'' Tammy Baldwin of the National Conference of Openly Lesbian and Gay Elected and Appointed Officials says that the rules are unclear: ``Gary Hart was an adulterer. He broke the rules. But how do you relate those rules to gays and lesbians? We don't have gay marriages.''
Former congressman Robert Bauman, himself defeated for reelection after pleading no contest to a charge of solicitation for prostitution, says, ``Society's prejudice against gays inflicts depths of despair on them. They are often treated like lepers by ... family, parents, those who should love them most.'' This is not to say, according to Mr. Bauman, that ``society made Barney do it. We live in a world where personal responsibility is imposed on us all.''
Denying that private sexual conduct is relevant to public service, Rep. Barbara Boxer insists, ``When you are human and vulnerable - not corrupt - you can go on.'' Rep. Chester G. Atkins of Massachusetts is even more direct: ``This is obviously a difficult personal time for Barney, but his personal life has nothing to do with the way he performs his public duties.''
However we regard homosexuality - as an aberration, a vice, a disease, a psychological or character defect, a matter of genetics, or a legitimate choice in life - it's undeniable that homosexuals have served honorably in public office. What standards of conduct should we expect from them?
First, paying a prostitute for sex is illegal in most jurisdictions. Those responsible for enacting, enforcing, and applying the law should not break it, even in private. What Frank did is legally reprehensible as surely as it was legally wrong for Rep. Donald Lukens to have sex with a 16-year-old girl.
Second, involvement with prostitutes defiles genuine sexual intimacy. It reflects disrespect for ourselves, and induces others to treat their bodies as objects with a price. Buying sex gives money to pimps who exploit children as well as adults, addict them to drugs, and expose them to dangerous diseases. Indifference to such consequences is a serious character flaw, a mark of selfishness and self-deception.
Third, promiscuity obscures the dignity of human beings. A form of intemperance, it shows lack of reasoned self-control, a vice Aristotle described as worse than cowardice. Since both single and married people exhibit sexual intemperance, homosexual marriage would not eliminate it.
Fourth, the rules of the House of Representatives say that a member must act ``at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House.'' Those people who rise above temptations to misconduct do so not only because of rules, however, but because they believe that anything less is unworthy of them.
Fifth, character weakness does not spring from any ``problem of equal rights.'' People with or without equal rights can do shameful things.
Sixth, all of us - including public servants who become corrupt - are ``human and vulnerable.'' A person tempted by dirty money is no less ``human and vulnerable'' than another who is tempted by intemperate sex. This is why House rules call for honorable conduct at all times.
Seventh, society did not ``make Barney do it.'' Neither is responsibility ``imposed'' on us. Human beings are credited with responsibility for their actions, good or bad, wherever nations respect them enough to honor liberty. Anyone who views this as a burden and an imposition ignores the real imposition: the totalitarian denial that we are free, and therefore responsible.
Last, few people are so morally schizophrenic that their ``personal lives have nothing to do'' with their public performance. Guilt, fear of detection, anxiety over personal problems, intemperate desires, and other distractions in private life affect public servants as much as the rest of us. We should not do things in private that are likely to cause us shame, to increase our vulnerability to future excesses, or to expose us to manipulation by others. None of us can live a public lie without corrosion of our sensibilities and judgment.
What, then, should gays, lesbians, and heterosexuals in public service do? They should treat prostitution and promiscuity as beneath them. They should avoid entanglements that compromise them and disdain conduct that forces them to live a lie.
Both homosexuals and heterosexuals who so behave are likely to possess and to deserve public trust. If homosexuals are denied elective office by the voters because of their homosexuality, their conduct can render their self-respect impervious to real or imagined injustice. Over time, good character in private and public can do more to combat prejudice than anything else can, certainly more than proliferation of rules and strident demands for rights.
Should Barney Frank's conduct be treated as grounds for a congressional reprimand? Of course. He has acted with contempt for the law and for decency. This reflects on the House - and the same thing would be true if he were heterosexual.