Pinal sheriff, is now running for Congress.

Tom Tingle

The outing of Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu underlines a growing truth about American politics in the 21st century, observers say: The closet appears to be closing as an option for gay politicians.

The good news for them: Fewer and fewer people seem to care.

The free flow of information on the Internet and growing public openness about homosexuality mean a candidate's orientation comes out, one way or another.

As a result, even following a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the public sphere, as Babeu did, is unlikely to pan out over the long run, said R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans and an associate of Babeu.

"We've reached a really interesting point in American politics," he said. "Anything that's hidden or secret will eventually surface."

Easy access to information also means that keeping a secret may be more difficult. In Babeu's case, an ex-lover accused him in the Phoenix New Times of threatening the lover with deportation if he didn't keep quiet about Babeu's personal life. The newspaper also published semi-nude photos Babeu sent via a gay dating website during his term as sheriff.

Babeu said neither he nor any representative made a threat but acknowledged sending the photos.

While he denied that threat, Babeu has used a prominent lawyer to have online comments about his sexuality on Pinal County news websites removed, editors there said.

The day after the Phoenix New Times published the ex-lover's allegations, Babeu acknowledged being gay and began taking stands in favor of gay rights. He also explained how it feels for a public figure to come out like this.

"It's very difficult and liberating at the same time," Babeu said. "I'm not going to live in fear. I'm not going to live with the threats."

Stayed in closet

By federal law, Babeu was forced to stay in the closet for his entire military career, which ended in September 2010 when he retired as a major in the U.S. Army National Guard.

The Don't Ask Don't Tell law took effect in July 1993, when Babeu had been in the service for almost three years. It was repealed in September 2011. The law, which subjected service members to expulsion if they revealed they were gay, led gay and lesbian service members to live what Cooper calls a "redacted life."

Cooper, who remains in the Army Reserve, coined the phrase to describe the awkward situation in which gay military members would not bring dates to unit events, would not speak about what they did on the weekend and avoided discussing their personal lives in general.

After separation from the military, some gay service members burst out of the closet, while others preferred to remain private, said Linda Thomas, a retired Air Force officer who until June 2011 worked as program director for Wingspan, an organization for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Tucson. Thomas and her partner, Hollace Lyon, moved to SaddleBrooke, live an open life and largely feel accepted, she said.

Kathy Young, political co-chair of the Human Rights Campaign in Arizona, said people have a right to their own process.

"Everybody's coming-out journey is very personal and doesn't necessarily speak to character," she said.

Cease AND desist

After his military retirement in September 2010, Babeu had a year-long window of opportunity to come out publicly before he announced he was exploring a run for Congress in October 2011. He didn't pretend to be heterosexual, but he remained in a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" mode.

In November 2010, former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods but by then a private attorney, sent cease-and-desist letters to two Apache Junction news outlets on Babeu's behalf, editors of each publication said. The letter Ed Barker received demanded that he remove comments by Babeu's estranged sister Lucy, said Barker, editor of the Apache Junction News.

The letter said "that I was printing blogs from Babeu's sister about his gay lifestyle, and that I was to immediately cease and desist," Barker said.

It turned out Woods had the wrong news outlet in that first letter: Lucy Babeu had been making comments on the Apache Junction Independent's website. The editor of that publication, Richard Dyer, said he got a cease-and-desist letter in November 2010 and passed it on to the company's webmaster.

Lucy Babeu said her comments were removed, and she was banned from commenting on the site.

In a separate incident during a long interview in early 2011, a reporter for Pinal Ways magazine asked Babeu, "Do you hope one day to marry?"

Babeu's response was equivocal: "Ah... one day. Maybe. It's not certain. Sometimes it's something that I may want or desire and then other times it's the last thing that's on my mind."

Babeu considered how to come out, said Cooper of the Log Cabin Republicans.

"Without breaking confidence, I can tell you that many within Republican circles said to him, 'Paul, you need to be prepared to talk about yourself articulately,' " Cooper said.

Kolbe's situation

Jim Kolbe, the former congressman who represented Southeastern Arizona for 22 years, knows about coming-out quandaries. The Republican thought he was going to be outed in 1996, so he held a press conference first to discuss his orientation.

"My view on any issue like this is, get out in front of it," Kolbe said. "Don't let it control you; you control it. But every person has to do it on their own terms."

Being a gay politician comes with significant challenges, said Ken Cheuvront, who served his Phoenix district in each house of the state Legislature for eight years. When he first won in 1994, he became the state's first openly gay legislator.

"My first eight years in office, I was 'Rep. Openly Gay Cheuvront," he said, citing the shorthand used to refer to him in news accounts.

Cheuvront said there's a key difference between him and Babeu: Cheuvront is a Democrat, while Babeu is a Republican who cultivated the party's conservative wing with strong anti-illegal-immigration rhetoric.

"I think it's really difficult running as a Republican openly gay, because the primary electorate is socially conservative," he said.

But Babeu's experience suggests that reality may be changing. In the first week after the initial story came out, the campaign raised another $14,000 and didn't have to return any of the $263,000 it had initially raised, said Chris DeRose, Babeu's campaign head.

What disturbed some of Babeu's supporters about the original story was not that Babeu is gay, said Malcolm Barrett Jr., chairman of the Yavapai County Republican Committee.

"Their level of support has not changed because of his being gay. Their level of support may have changed because of his judgment on the pictures," Barrett said.

Cheuvront perceives tolerance spreading across the political spectrum.

"Times are changing very quickly," he said, "and I think acceptance toward gays and lesbians is going quicker than even I thought."

Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or