Kathleen Rooney knows Illinois politics. Having been a staffer in the office of Senator Dick Durbin, known less for his achievements on Capitol Hill and more for mentoring President Barack Obama, Rooney worked tirelessly behind the scenes for more than a decade…until she was fired. In her latest book O, Democracy! Rooney tells the story of trying to make a difference inside a political machine that is Schock-ingly gay. Queerty sat down with Rooney in her native Chicago to discuss her book, the November elections and closeted politicians.
In the book you write about a Republican Illinois Congressman with a gay secret. I can’t help but ask: is this character based on Aaron Schock?
Although Aaron Schock is, like, just delicious and obvious, for now I’ll just say that it’s actually a composite character of a bunch of different politicians I encountered over the years. The state of Illinois seems to have a fairly longstanding tradition of closeted Republicans in office.
I’ve actually thought a lot about this and I think they’re opportunistic. The path to leadership in the Illinois Republican Party is a hell of a lot shorter and whiter than the Democratic path, so it’s a good career move for them. Also, their ambitions are often big: senate, governorship, presidency. And therefore they know they have to be closeted, because America is — very disappointingly — not ready to elect an openly gay president. So long as they’re already pretending to be something they’re not, why not do it in a way that’s politically advantageous to them?
But, like, there are tons of openly gay politicians in other states, why not just come out?
It would be easy to say that conservative middle America is just repulsed by difference and hates it in every form, but that’s not remotely true; it just doesn’t want to be challenged by difference. America loves gay camp the same way it loved blackface: they love to laugh at difference, and the laughter isn’t without affection. It’s just without respect. Take Liberace, for example. Middle America loved Liberace, and knew he was gay, and was cool with it so long as he always said he was straight. Gay right-wing politicians are kind of the same thing. Americans don’t actually give a shit whether politicians actually share their values so long as they consistently perform their values. When a gay man pretends to be one of them, it doesn’t necessarily imply that they’re suckers; it just implies that they’re powerful enough to coerce somebody into doing that. America knows this about itself, and likes it.
Yes, I wrote a fictionalized version of something heavily autobiographical. And even though I was urged to write a tell-all or a memoir I really wanted to do something relatable and entertaining. Something that not just political dorks, but general readers can get into and understand.
So, by any chance are you hoping this book sways the upcoming November elections?
Good question. My intention is not to try and influence the election but maybe to get people to think and pay more attention both to elections and to the stuff that goes on between them, which, theoretically, is where the real democracy happens. Elections are largely theater, but you still shouldn’t just sit on your butt and be apathetic. My main character Colleen tries to make a difference through the electoral system and loses her job. You can make the world better but it’s not from voting; you have to go out and change your community. You can’t rely on our dinosaur system. I want people to remember to be citizens: 300 million people acting mindfully every day.