Dustin Smith is an “out and proud gay man” living in North Dakota, one of America’s more conservative states.
So the 21-year-old wasn’t exactly surprised when he read that state legislators had refused to outlaw discrimination against gays. “These are the members of the House who voted against legal protections,” read the headline of an April 2 article alongside photos of the politicians.
What surprised Smith was that he knew one of them — somewhat intimately, it turns out.
“I’m sure I’ve talked to this person before,” Smith remembers thinking to himself, as he told The Washington Post in a telephone interview from his home in Bismarck, N.D. “Suddenly it dawned on me: I think I’ve seen this guy on Grindr!”
Smith started going through his conversations on Grindr — “an all-male location-based social network”— searching for the round, bespectacled face and bushy eyebrows. And there he was: Top Man!, a.k.a. Randy Boehning, the Republican state representative from Fargo.
Scrolling through the conversation, however, Smith found more than sexually suggestive messages. He found an unsolicited picture of the public servant’s not-so-public parts.
“I just felt like this story had to get out,” Smith said. “A [representative] had voted against a bill for the LGBT community and here he was talking to me on Grindr.”
Smith approached a reporter from the Forum in Fargo, and on Monday night the newspaper ran an expose.
Since his election in 2002, Boehning has proved a staunch conservative. He has pushed to allow guns in classrooms and churches and sponsored strict voter identification requirements. He once attacked Democrats over their effort to give poor kids extra milk at school. Twice, he’s voted against expanding legal protections for gays.
Grindr-gate, however, has plunged Boehning into existential crisis. Confronted with the photos he had sent Smith, the lawmaker admitted that he was gay. (His Grindr bio reads: “Seems I haven’t found mister right yet, so need to keep looking for and having fun on the way! Hit me up boys.”)
Boehning, 49, also defended sending the younger man a picture of his private parts and pickup lines such as “What’s up tonight sexy?”
“That’s what gay guys do on gay sites, don’t they?” he told the Forum. “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.”
But then things got weird.
Boehning said Smith’s disclosure of the photos was part of a campaign to retaliate against him for his vote against the anti-discrimination bill. A fellow state representative had tried to blackmail him before the April 2 vote, threatening Boehning that he would be targeted for retaliation if he didn’t back the legislation, Boehning also claimed. But then he refused to name the alleged blackmailer.
He also gave two reasons for voting against the bill, even though he is gay, according to the Forum. Boehning quibbled with the language of the proposed legislation, which would have protected people “perceived” to be gay. But he also said he voted against his own self-interest because his south Fargo constituents would want him to.
“This has been a challenge for me,” he 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.”
Grindr-gate has caused controversy in Bismarck, a city of less than 70,000. Some questioned whether it was right for Smith — and the Forum — to effectively out the politician.
But Smith insisted it was never his intention to out a fellow gay man. Instead, he spoke up out of concern for gay rights in what he calls a “bigoted state.”
“We live in a state that discriminates against gay people,” he told The Post, adding that gays could be denied housing or restaurant service because Boehning and other politicians voted down the anti-discrimination bill. “North Dakota is kind of being left in the dust as far as civil rights are concerned.”
He added: “I’ve witnessed it going to high school. I’ve witnessed it in my own life, where you don’t have a chance to come out on your own terms and come out in your own way … I’m not trying discredit him in anyway. I’m just trying to point out the hypocrisy of it. He lives in a state where he represents constituents who don’t agree with his lifestyle. But he has to lie to them about his lifestyle and his personal beliefs to get elected.”
In fact, Smith confronted Boehning with his criticism before going to the media.
“Saw you in the paper. Lol,” Smith wrote on April 4.
“And,” the representative replied.
“Found it interesting,” Smith wrote.
“Lol Doesn’t the hypocrisy bother you?” Smith wrote. Boehning didn’t answer.
Smith’s own life informed his decision to go public with the conversation. Raised in an evangelical Christian family in Dickinson, N.D., Smith said his parents learned he was gay when they found an amorous conversation with a schoolmate on his cellphone. His parents sent him to their pastor to “pray the gay away,” he said. “It was a very dark time in my life. I went through depression. Contemplated suicide. That kind of stuff.”
“I struggled with my sexuality and coming out for a very long time,” he said. When he finally came out to his friends and family as a junior in high school, “it was a huge weight lifted off my life. The people who loved me and accepted me drew me in closer.
“I’m hoping that [Boehning] experiences something very similar with him coming out,” Smith said.
In fact, the politician said he was relieved not to keep secrets anymore, even though those secrets protected him from his own constituents.
“The 1,000-pound gorilla has been lifted,” Boehning said. “I have to confront it at some point.”