Aaron Schock and the Closets of Downton Abbey

Representative Aaron Schock, a Republican from Illinois, pauses while speaking during an interview in Washington, D.C., U.S.,
Representative Aaron Schock, a Republican from Illinois, pauses while speaking during an interview in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee resisted parts of the early versions of Chairman Dave Campo's plan for the biggest tax-code changes since 1986, said Schock. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Who'd have guessed that after years of gay-baiting rumors, U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Illinois) would have been undone by plain old financial impropriety?

The nitty-gritty details of his undoing are woefully pedestrian, at least when compared with the snowball that started the avalanche: His troubles started after he spent tens of thousands of dollars on redecorating his office, allegedly to look like Downton Abbey. That peculiar bit of gossip led to an investigation that uncovered far more serious financial mismanagement, and rather than deal with the fallout, he simply resigned. Bye, Rep. Felicia (R-Straight-acting).

It's far more fun to talk about the gay rumors than his fiscal shenanigans. Those rumors have followed him throughout his career, fueled in part by the endless parade of flamboyant outfits and shirtless muscle pics on Schock's own Instagram feed. Once he was photographed wearing a pink shirt and teal belt, and given the way the Internet reacted, you'd have thought Liberace had just come out of hiding.

Of course, we don't know for sure whether Schock is gay. All we know is that relatively few heterosexuals are forced from office by an interior decorating scandal.

If Schock is in the closet, it's a closet that he helped perpetuate during his years in Congress. Thanks to his opposition to open military service, marriage equality, and hate crime protection for LGBT people, he earned a perfect 0-percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign. Too bad HRC doesn't award bonus points for best swimwear.

I explain how Schock used the closet to his advantage in this video:

When I talk about Schock's "closet," I mean the system of keeping LGBTs down by intimidating and disadvantaging them. Schock never met an anti-gay law he didn't like, even though he was uncomfortable when asked why. Laws like those Schock supported are designed to oppress gays and lesbians, and they send a clear message: Sure, go ahead and be openly gay; just remember that you could lose your job, your home, your safety, or your life.

In other words, the closet forces LGBTs to choose between living openly, or being able to participate in society. Come out, and you may lose everything, but keep your mouth shut, and you may have a shot at success.

But for decades, that success has come with a heavy price: The only way to hang on to power was to keep your secret hidden. And that meant perpetuating the closet, passing it along, and forcing others to stay hidden as well.

For example, look at Roy Cohn: He was a closeted gay man who worked with Joe McCarthy on the Communist witch hunts and fabricated the "Lavender Scare," the fear that Russian homosexual spies had infiltrated the government. Aided by Cohn, McCarthy once famously told reporters, "If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you've got to be either a Communist or a cocksucker." The two men forced countless gays and lesbians out of their jobs, while Cohn maintained his hold on power.

I'm not saying Schock is closeted. I just hope he has a nice safe place for his collection of espadrilles.

It's no wonder that for decades, gays and lesbians chose to stay hidden. I can't blame them: They didn't invent the closet; they inherited it, passed down from one generation to the next. The only way to avoid persecution was to adopt the secrecy of those who came before you.

Peek inside the closets of today's politicians, and you'll see Roy Cohn's remains. And maybe also a pink shirt and teal belt.

Whether he's in the closet himself or just putting others in there, Aaron Schock helped keep that cycle of secrets and intimidation alive. And why not? He probably discovered that there are donors and voters who are hungry for homophobic rhetoric. Like Roy Cohn, he found that the closet could be a means to amass power and influence by exploiting peoples' fear of LGBTs.

But those days are quickly coming to an end. For the first time, it's possible to be successful without choosing the closet. Just look at Neil Patrick Harris, or Barney Frank, or pretty much the entire cast of Glee at this point.

The closet's cycle of secrets and intimidation is finally coming to an end.

Being outed used to mean the end of your career. These days, it means the start of your career on the cover of People magazine. That doesn't mean that Aaron Schock is going to follow in the footsteps of Lance Bass and Clay Aiken. But he and his chest have already posed for the cover of Men's Health. And who among us doesn't have a passion for healthy men?

Is he gay or straight? Who cares. The important thing is that he's an opportunist who used the closet for his own gain with no regard for the harm he caused his LGBT constituents -- or at least he was an opportunist, while the gay-bashing was good. He's getting out of politics at the right time, now that the closet's power is dwindling.

If he's gay, he's a terrible hypocrite. And if he's straight, he's a terrible person. Either way, Congress is rid of him, and now the only person who has to think about Aaron Schock's sexuality is Aaron Schock.

Of course, I'm not saying Schock is as gay as Roy Cohn. But he sure doesn't seem like a Communist to me.