Arkansas senator Tom Cotton ignited a firestorm yesterday when he said on CNN that gays who were complaining about anti-gay legislation in Indiana and Arkansas should shut up because, hey, at least they weren't being killed like in Iran. So how come nobody in Arkansas believes he's straight?
Cotton—who has been called a "conservative superstar" by the Atlantic and "the perfect Republican" by Jonathan Chait—has increasingly wedged himself into the national conversation in just his first few months in the Senate. Last month, he spearheaded a letter from the Republican caucus to the leaders of Iran regarding a planned (and ultimately consummated) nuclear arms deal. The letter, which attempted to dissuade Iran from negotiating with Barack Obama, proved to be an immediate disaster for Republicans, but it did achieve at least one intended goal, which was inflating Cotton's national profile. He has been featured twice in the New York Times in the last four weeks, once in March and most recently this weekend in a magazine interview in which he admits to indulging in birthday cake nearly every single day.
Still, his comments about Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act have drawn a particular ire—with good reason, considering that Cotton essentially argued that gays should feel happy that they are not being executed in public. Miley Cyrus, for instance, tweeted Cotton's office phone number to her 19.4 million followers, almost immediately filling up his voicemail inbox. But not only were his comments egregiously gross, they were also especially curious, because if you talk to just about anyone in Arkansas political circles—as well as average citizens in his hometown of Dardanelle—you'll hear about a persistent rumor that Tom Cotton, a budding face of the GOP and outspoken opponent of homosexuality, is gay.
We first heard about the rumor in September, when a tipster emailed us saying that a story regarding Cotton's sexuality was being passed around Democratic political circles in Arkansas. We spoke, off the record, with several local Democrats—including a high-ranking party official—who would say little about the rumor that Cotton is gay beyond swearing that it existed and was real. Later in the year, Democratic operatives in Washington sent us a photo purporting to be of Cotton at a gay bar in D.C., but despite being picked up by at least one blog, the photo didn't check out.
Through a spokesperson, Cotton declined to comment.
So, is Cotton merely the victim of a whisper campaign engineered by Democrats in his state? That is certainly possible. If you look at the 262 followers of a (frankly homophobic) Cotton parody account called @CottonCandyAR that imagines Cotton as a sort of crossdresser, you'll see several local liberal activists, as well as a few official campaign accounts including that of Mark Pryor, the incumbent senator whom Cotton defeated in November.
Nonetheless, political operatives are far from the only people in Arkansas spreading, or acknowledging, the rumor that Cotton is gay. We spoke to a well-connected local source who has heard whispers about Cotton's sexuality dating back years. We spoke to several of Cotton's high school classmates who said that although there were not suspicions about Cotton when he was in school, they have since heard the rumor that he is gay.
"I never seen tom with a girl or talk about one. rumor was he was gay but no proof ever found," said one woman via Facebook who attended Dardanelle High with Cotton.
There is, if you look in the right places, scattered chatter about Cotton's sexuality on the internet. There is a whole thread on the gay gossip site Datalounge. In 2012, the daughter of an Arkansas state senator was forced to apologize after tweeting that Cotton is gay, and a few months ago the story of his sexuality was picked up by none other than infamous rumormonger Chuck C. Johnson. It's probably no coincidence that Cotton was the first Republican pranked with fake campaign ads on Grindr.
If you look at articles reporting Cotton's recent marriage to his wife Anna, you'll notice anonymous commenters calling the whole thing a sham.
"Beard," says one matter-of-fact comment on an Arkansas Times story about Cotton's marriage. "He had to do something to counter those anti women rants he had during his college years,"a commenter named BUD says on a local news story announcing Cotton's marriage. "And to counter that nagging gay thing."
Cotton's marriage is a particular bug-a-boo amongst certain citizens of Arkansas. Cotton and Anna Peckham announced their marriage abruptly in March of last year, and his office was so unusually evasive about the details that the Arkansas Times wrote that entire article about it. To people in Arkansas who are perhaps already skeptical of Cotton as a politician, the marriage seemed sudden and suspicious, as if Cotton was working to complete a checklist as quickly as possible. The announcement of Anna's pregnancy just seven months after their marriage certainly hasn't helped matters.
"He only got married so people would think he's not gay," said the same high school classmate. "You can tell by the way he walks and talks." Another high school classmate of his told us via Facebook, "I can say that I've not ever seen him with a girlfriend, until he recently got married."
Maybe Cotton is gay or bisexual; maybe he isn't. He might just be an attractive, longtime single, and slightly effeminate Southern man who married a Yankee out of nowhere, thus raising alarm bells among his constituents. The rumors about his sexuality never reached a point in this last election where he, or anyone from his campaign, had to address them. But they're likely a preview of what Cotton is going to have to deal with as he ascends up the Republican party, perhaps even up to the Oval Office, provided he doesn't derail his career first.
As one source said to us some months ago about the rumors of Cotton's sexuality: "This isn't going away."
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[photo by AP]