FARGO—A North Dakota lawmaker who sent an explicit photo of himself to another man says the exchange being made public is retaliation for a recent vote against expanding gay rights.
Rep. Randy Boehning, a 52-year-old Republican legislator from Fargo, says a Capitol employee told him a fellow lawmaker vowed to out him as gay if he continued to vote against bills granting gays legal protections against discrimination.
Boehning refused to identify at this point who he believes is behind the purported political payback for his vote against Senate Bill 2279, the third such bill defeated in the past six years by North Dakota legislators.
The exchange came to light when Dustin Smith, a 21-year-old Bismarck man with no known connections to the Capitol, contacted The Forum earlier this month, saying he recognized Boehning from a gay dating smartphone app called Grindr. Chatting under the user name Top Man!, Boehning sent Smith sexually suggestive messages and, in the early morning hours of March 12, an unsolicited photo of his penis, according to exchanges reviewed by The Forum.
"How can you discriminate against the person you're trying to pick up?" Smith said in a recent interview.
When first questioned about the messages two weeks ago, Boehning declined to comment on whether he sent the explicit photo and messages.
But on Saturday he confirmed he was Top Man! and said he doesn't think sending a graphic photo of himself to a stranger is a lapse in judgment, as Grindr is an adult site where users often exchange such images.
"That's what gay guys do on gay sites, don't they?" Boehning said. "That's how things happen on Grindr. It's a gay chat site. It's not the first thing you do on that site. That's what we do, exchange pics on the site."
Boehning, who is not married, said there are people who know he is gay, but many of his family members and friends do not. He said Saturday he is also attracted to women and was relieved to come out because he no longer has to worry about being outed.
"The 1,000-pound gorilla has been lifted," he said. "I have to confront it at some point."
Payback for vote?
Boehning said before he voted against the anti-discrimination bill on April 2 a Capitol employee told him a fellow House lawmaker who supported the bill said Boehning would be targeted for retaliation if he didn't vote for it. The 12-year veteran of the House still voted against 2279. He also voted against a similar bill in 2009 and would have in 2013, had the proposal not died in the Senate before a House vote.
He would not say who told him he would be targeted or name the lawmaker who is said to have mentioned it. Also, he couldn't recall the day he was informed of the alleged retaliation threat.
As of Monday, Boehning said he hadn't talked to legislative leaders about the alleged threat and wouldn't identify who he thinks is involved without doing that first. Though there is no binding ethics code for North Dakota legislators, he said there could be ramifications and "this isn't something I take lightly."
Smith said he stepped forward on his own after discovering Boehning's identity when he saw the legislator's photo, which was published on the front page of The Forum the day after the vote. No one with connections to the Legislature encouraged him to take that step, he said.
Rep. Josh Boschee, a Fargo Democrat and the only openly gay member of the Legislature, said he did not speak with Boehning about his vote.
But Boschee said lawmakers from both parties have told him a gay Republican staffer at the Capitol who had been in contact with Boehning on Grindr since his last run for office had warned Boehning "there could be consequences for the hypocrisy of [his] vote," Boschee said.
Boschee would not identify the staffer, saying the man was concerned about the political fallout from his own party.
Asked on Monday via email if it was a Republican staffer who warned him to change his vote, Boehning didn't address it specifically.
"Well it would be interesting who it was then stay tuned I guess," he wrote.
Outing closeted gay politicians who cast votes seen as anti-gay is divisive in the gay community and has many critics. But while Smith and Boschee said they regret that Boehning was forced to come out of the closet, they believe it points out an important discrepancy between Boehning's vote and his personal life.
For his part, Boehning said coming out under these circumstances was both a personal relief and a political struggle.
"This has been a challenge for me," Boehning said. "You don't tell everyone you're going to vote one way and then switch your vote another way—you don't have any credibility that way."
Boehning, a self-employed general contractor, said he has voted against multiple attempts to extend protected-class status to include sexual orientation because he doesn't believe his south Fargo constituents support it. Also, he has problems with the bill's language, which would protect people who are "perceived" to be gay.
If "perceived" was removed from the bill, he might vote in favor of it, he said.
Asked whether he would be personally concerned about being discriminated against in the areas of housing, workplace or public accommodation, Boehning, who lives in a rented Fargo apartment, said landlords have the right to do as they see fit.
He said many members of the Legislature find themselves allying and clashing on a variety of issues, regardless of party.
"Politics makes strange bedfellows," he said.