Language, Power and Discourse of Sexuality: The case of Governor McGreevey

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Language, Power and Discourse of Sexuality: The case of Governor McGreevey

Sierra Jorgensen

Foucault asks "What are the links between these discourses, these effects of power, and the pleasures that were invested by them?" (Foucault, 11). In the case of New Jersey governor it seems clear that power, language and pleasure were very much related in his speech on August 13, 2004, in which he announced his resignation, that he had had an affair with a man, and that he was a "gay American." A man in a position of power was both given power and gave power to the general public with his announcement. Consequently he opened up a multiplicity of discourses on the matter ranging from the true reason for his resignation, to the true meaning of the word Gay, to the effects that his coming out would have on the gay community. The case of governor McGreevey showed how language can be powerful, helpful and harming all at the same time, furthering Foucault's suggestion of strong links between discourse, power and pleasure.
McGreevey exercises a great deal of power in choosing the things that he says in his speech and even the ways that he says them. He uses his words to benefit him. The majority of the speech sounds like a plea to the people of New Jersey and the American public. He asks for the audience to sympathize by speaking of his struggle and confusion. So, when McGreevey says, "And so my truth is that I am a gay American. And I am blessed to live in the greatest nation with the tradition of civil liberties, the greatest tradition of civil liberties in the world, in a country which provides so much to its people" the audience feels a pathos for him. This statement is a direct call for forgiveness and sympathy, even before they have heard the whole case. It calls for the American people to remember their civil liberties and privileges to forgive him any wrong doing. "...McGreevey was playing the gay card as a trump for being corrupt..." (Brown). Amidst current discussion of Gay issues in American politics McGreevey was playing to an issue that most Americans feel strongly about in one way or another. Thus "...McGreevey has made his story both unusual and important by casting it as the tale of a secretly gay public official - someone who masqueraded as heterosexual for his whole adult life - who was undone less by his obvious ethical lapses, than by the necessity of hiding his true sexual identity." (Lazarus). Through language he finds "Ways of rendering it [his actions] morally acceptable and technically useful" (Foucault, 21). It is with this beginning to the speech that he announces his affair and resignation. His speech is "...calculated to drown out the much less forgivable lapse of putting his almost comically unqualified boyfriend, Golan Cipel, on the state payroll..."(Brown).
McGreevey's failure to mention anything regarding placing Golan Cipel on the payroll is one of the many things that give the media and public power. "There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses" (Foucault, 27). This silence was calculated by McGreevey but acted to work against him. The things that are excluded from the speech give others power. The media and the public are then given the power to scrutinize. Delany says, "We must always reserve a margin to deal with what is excluded from our articulation, no matter the apparent inclusiveness" (Delany, 140). Through this margin McGreevey gives the media and the public the power to speculate the true reason for the speech. The situation "...had given the Governor the choice of being exposed through a lawsuit or of making some kind of payoff. But McGreevey decided on a third option: to announce, surrounded by his wife and family, that he is a "gay American," to admit an affair with (though not harassment of) Cipel, and to resign effective in November." McGreevey did not come out to the American public out of pride for his identity, but rather out of a fear of exposure and legal problems. The question then arises as to the legitimacy of his claim to be gay. Many reporters asked why, if McGreevey was gay, did his heterosexual relationship—his marriage—not come to an end. It even called up a discussion of the true nature of gayness, asking whether it is an identity or a performance.
Along with the power to interpret McGreevey's silences the media is also given the power to interpret his words. Some people begin to ask whether the reason he was resigning is because he is gay or because he was involved in an affair. The emphasis placed in the beginning of his speech on his struggle that he used to inspire understanding makes it seem as though his sexual orientation is the most important aspect that needs to be conveyed. The headlines that announced his resignation, "US governor Quits Over Gay Affair"; "NJ governor, saying he's gay, resigns office"; "NJ Governor: I'm Gay and I Quit," indicate that the importance of him coming out was expressed. Therefore, if his sexual orientation is in fact the most important part of the speech then it would seem to follow that the reason for his resignation is that he is gay. The headlines also indicate this. It seems in fact from comments from the media and the public that they believe that the reason he is leaving office is that he is gay. "'I never thought he was going to admit he's gay, to be so genuine. I expected him to say legal problems were forcing him to step down,'" Rick Dalina said in reaction to the governor's speech (Gendar and Standora). While the true reason that McGreevey stepped down was legal reasons it is a common misconception that is was because he was gay.
It is exactly this misconception that has opened a discourse based on the effect of McGreevey on the gay community and the gay community's approval or disapproval of him. McGreevey, like many homosexuals, struggled in realizing and accepting his identity. "Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, hailed the 'amazing' and 'moving' elements in McGreevey's coming-out speech. 'Perhaps the very open and human way he did that,' Foreman said, 'will increase respect for gay people who make that decision every day'" (Santos). His position of power and very public announcement of his homosexuality gave strength to many fellow "gay American[s]." His prompt resignation, though, after becoming America's first openly gay governor can hurt the Gay community. Many conservatives as well as some liberals may take this as an indication that a homosexual does not have the capacity to govern. The revelation of a sexual affair at the same moment as a revelation of homosexuality could also reinforce many stereotypes that gay men sleep around and take advantage of straight men. These notions could be very counter-productive to the few advances that gays have made recently and could be devastating to current debate over the legalization of gay marriage. The issue of gay marriage could also be hurt by the connection that McGreevey makes between gays and their feelings on gay marriage. Gay marriages were recently halted in New Jersey. This halt to gay marriages may lead people to believe that McGreevey doesn't agree with gay marriage.
Unfortunately the first exercise of power happened much before McGreevey's speech. The exercise of power was a societal pressure to suppress homosexuality and discourse about homosexuality. According to Freud what is repressed always surfaces, often is a different manner. Not only was McGreevey forced to suppress his homosexuality by marrying a woman and any discourse about it, he was consequently forced to suppress his means of obtaining sexual pleasure. "...the harder you try to suppress the truth, the more inevitable it is that it will find a way to come out" (Huffington). In McGreevey's case his sexual repression surfaced in the manner of obtaining pleasure through an adulterous affair with another man that resulted in him employing this man in a high state position. McGreevey was forced in unfortunate circumstances with somewhat unfortunate consequences to put into discourse his sexuality and the affair thereby inspiring a multiplicity of discourses.

Brown, Tina. "The Governor Slips Out Under Cover of Gayness". Thursday, , August 19, 2004; Page C01

Delany, Samuel. "Aversion/Perversion/Diversion." Longer Views: Extended Essays. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1996. 119-143.

Foucault, Michel. "We 'Other Victorians'" and "The Repressive Hypothesis."The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction.Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980. 3-13, 17-49.

Gendar, Alison and Standora, Leo. "Gov's groove no secret around town". New York Daily News Saturday, August 14th, 2004.

Huffinton, Arianna. "Drama of New Jersey governor teaches us that to be gay is to be normal". Ariana Online August 16, 2004

Lazarus, Edward. "The Issues Governor McGreevey's Resignation Raises:
Stigma, Acceptance, and the Difference Between Legal and Social Change". Thursday, Aug. 19, 2004

"McGreevey: I am a gay American"

Santos, Fernanda. "Instant hero in gay community". New York Daily News Friday, August 13th, 2004.

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