Rick Lazio may be a moderate to the media, but that didn’t stop him from using an antigay epithet in an interview with CBS Evening News that aired last week.
When reporter Diana Olick asked the senate candidate about negative campaigning, Lazio replied, “I think you have to be decent.” But being decent, he added, “doesn’t mean you’re a pansy.”
The remark apparently went right by the reporter, who never followed it up with a question. It also went right by CBS. Lazio’s pansy quote was part of an interview that had been taped on February 15. CBS waited more than three months to air it—and only resurrected the remark because they needed footage of Lazio addressing the issue of negative campaigning. No one at the network thought the homophobic slur was significant.
“At the time it wasn’t thought to be as newsworthy as you think it is,” notes Sandy Genelius, a CBS News spokesperson. When asked whether a comparable remark about another group—say, “Being frugal doesn’t mean you’re a kike“—would have elicited the same indifference, Genelius accused this reporter of being “emotional.”
CBS has faced criticism from gay groups in the past, most recently in 1989 for negative comments about homosexual unions by Andy Rooney. Yet Genelius insists the network was fair in its reaction to Lazio’s remark: “If you read that quote to 10 different people, you might get 10 different interpretations. I don’t think it’s our place to interpret another person’s quote.” Pat Shevlin, executive producer of CBS Weekend News, agrees: “I just thought he was referring to someone who was sort of a delicate person,” Shevlin says. “It didn’t strike me as being antigay at all.”
But Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary clearly states that, aside from referring to a garden plant, the word pansy is a term for “a male homosexual—often used disparagingly.” Pansy “became prominent in the 1920s,” says the historian George Chauncey, author of Gay New York, “and it had distinct class connotations as well as sexual ones.” The term connoted effeteness and effeminacy, but also “putting on upper-class airs.”
For its part, the Lazio campaign insists he was merely referring to the botanical definition. “It’s a flower,” notes campaign spokesman Dan McLagan, laughing. Not surprisingly, Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson, had a different take on the remark: “It’s totally outrageous, completely inappropriate.”
But so far, there is little pressure on Lazio to recant. At press time, no media organization had picked up on the comment, even though major news organizations like the Associated Press and The New York Times regularly watch network news broadcasts for possible story leads. “We do monitor national broadcasts,” says Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis, “but this was one we were not aware of.” Over at AP, corporate Web site manager Janis Magin explains: “We weren’t aware of the quote. I have a writer looking into it.”
AP did run a story on May 24 that mentioned Lazio’s gay rights record—a notably poor one, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the national gay lobby. In fact, Lazio has shifted markedly in the past year from a relatively moderate (for a Republican) position on gay rights to his present hard-line stance. Yet the Times, a champion of gay rights, has yet to address Lazio’s record on these issues.
This silence makes it that much easier for commentators to reinforce the image Lazio is trying to project: that of an affable guy who likes taking pictures with his daughter wrapped in an American flag.
“Part of our continuing problem is that gay issues are not yet accepted as core human rights issues by a lot of people,” says Matt Foreman, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a statewide gay lobby. “So, if you’re 18 percent OK on gay issues, people think you’re supportive. For every other significant issue, the bar is much, much higher.”
But how can people take gay rights seriously if it’s still so permissible to mock gay people that, when a major politician uses a homophobic epithet, nobody even notices?
Research: Julia Gayduk