An Unconventional Casualty of #MeToo America
Katie Hill represented the dream of every young, female, politically aware American. She’s young, educated, and driven, and as a bisexual woman, she offers an underrepresented perspective. She ran for office with zero political experience beforehand and unseated a Republican incumbent in a California swing-district. As soon as she stepped foot on the Hill, she joined two House Committees and was widely heralded as a rising star of the Democratic Party. What went wrong?
On October 27, Hill officially resigned from Congress because of allegations that she was engaged in a romantic relationship with her legislative director, Graham Kelly. Her subsequent resignation has ignited conversations about sexism, justice, and conduct in the American legislature.
When Hill was running for office in November 2018, she and her husband, Kenny Heslep, carried out a romantic relationship with one of her female campaign staffers. Though Hill admitted to this infraction, Heslep, with whom she is now engaged in intense divorce proceedings, accused her of also being romantically involved with Kelly. The difference: the relationship with the anonymous female campaign staffer occurred before she took office, while the Kelly affair allegedly took place during her tenure. Hill has vehemently denied this allegation about Kelly and has accused Heslep of leaking this information to Red State, a conservative site. These media sources have also published nude photos of Hill, which she insists were procured from her husband and published as an act of “revenge porn,” or the intentional release of revealing or sexually explicit images, often by a former partner.
The House of Representatives Ethics Committee had already opened an investigation into Hill’s alleged affair with Kelly before the media circus began, though they didn’t find any evidence of a romantic relationship before Hill announced her resignation. In her official resignation, Hill wrote that “this is what needs to happen so that the good people who supported me will no longer be subjected to the pain inflicted by my abusive husband and the brutality of hateful political operatives.” In other words, she declared that she hoped to spare her constituents the drama of a humiliating congressional investigation by resigning ahead of time.
Since the #MeToo era began just over two years ago, there have been several rule changes in the House regarding sexual misconduct, and as a result, several members of Congress have stepped down. In February 2018, one rule was changed to state that legislators could not have romantic relationships with those working in their congressional offices or on any committees they are involved in. Hill is the first member of Congress to be investigated for allegedly violating this rule. However, it is not a violation of the congressional code of conduct to engage in a consensual relationship with a member of one’s campaign staff, which was the case with the relationship between Hill, Heslep, and the female campaign staffer, which Hill has admitted to.
Expectedly, several members of Congress shared their opinions on Hill’s alleged actions and resignation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that “we must ensure a climate of integrity and dignity in the Congress, and in all workplaces,” and as such, Hill’s “errors in judgment” have cost her her seat in the House. Contrarily, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) argued that “I don’t think we’re really talking about how targeted and serious this is. We’re talking about a major crime… being committed against her.”
Regardless of whether or not Hill’s unexpected resignation was justified, it’s clear that what drove Hill from office was a combination of the allegations against her and the widespread media attention, which featured explicit photos of the consensual “throuple.”
Undoubtedly, the latter relationship was improper and ethically wrong. Hill herself admitted as much—“even a consensual relationship with a subordinate is inappropriate”—and she’s right. Such a relationship inevitably includes some kind of power imbalance, even if the House code of conduct doesn’t explicitly forbid such an affair. Even more alarmingly, texts released by Hill’s husband to Red State suggest that there may have been some degree of emotional abuse in the relationship.
However, media sites such as Red State have focused on the unethical aspects of that relationship. No matter your personal opinion, it doesn’t matter that Hill was in a polyamorous relationship; it matters that one of the individuals involved was one of her subordinates. It doesn’t matter that Hill is bisexual and that she was consensually engaged in a relationship with one man and one woman; it matters that she chose to consensually engage in such a relationship with one of her subordinates.
It also doesn’t matter that Hill had explicit photos taken of her. Despite her choice to enter the public sphere as a congresswoman, her private photos are no one’s business but her own. Whoever released the photos to the media is in the wrong; nonconsensual pornography is against the law in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Moreover, “revenge porn” relies on shame and societal prejudice, making it an intellectually lazy strategy utilized by those with no coherent or intelligent arguments. In her last speech to Congress, Hill wasn’t wrong to blame “a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse.”
It’s also impossible to ignore the gender dimension of this situation. In a sense, Hill is the victim of sexual shaming in a political culture unwilling to accept that women have sex lives—especially queer women. It’s more than fair to assume that a straight man in Hill’s position would not be faced with the same severity of character scrutiny, and it’s also likely that a straight man wouldn’t have felt the need to resign. To bring up the glaringly obvious, the President of the United States has been investigated for paying off a pornographic actress to cover up an affair, and in the same vein, Duncan Hunter, another representative from California, is currently being investigated for using campaign funds to maintain extramarital affairs with five different women. He still holds his position and was even re-elected last year amidst these allegations. It’s almost laughable that the first casualty of this new House ethics rule is a bisexual woman.
But I digress. As sad as it is that Hill is a victim of pervading sexism in our government and in our society, it’s neither productive nor meaningful to point out all of the other people in Congress who should have stepped down for worse offenses. This kind of lamentful comparison only lowers the moral standards that citizens should hold their public officials to, and considering the current state of affairs (pun intended), that’s a dangerous game to play.
There’s still one allegation under dispute: whether or not Hill engaged in a romantic relationship with Kelly. Heslep accused Hill of cheating on him with Kelly in a post to his Facebook page earlier this year: “[Hill has been] sleeping with her [legislative] director for the last year at least.” The House Ethics Committee didn’t have the chance to find any evidence to this allegation, but according to the Federal Election Commission, Kelly was paid an additional $5,100 as a “2018 election bonus” in April. Kelly himself has not spoken out to confirm or deny the affair, but the rest is history.
In her final speech to Congress, Hill expressed that she was resigning because of a “double standard.” There’s evidence to that claim; Hill has every right to be righteously angered by the “cyber exploitation and sexual shaming” that she experienced throughout this ordeal. Her final act in Congress was voting “to move forward with the impeachment of Donald Trump on behalf of the women of the United States,” citing Trump’s “sexual predation” and the “dozens of women” who have accused him of such. She wrapped up her remarks by declaring that her objective was to show “young people, queer people, working people, imperfect people that they belong here,” and concluded with an apology: “to every young person who saw themselves and their dreams reflected in me, I’m sorry.”
This situation is increasingly complex for two reasons: because Hill decided to remove herself from office rather than risk being forcibly ousted, and because she must defend herself and apologize for herself in equal measure. She’s justified in calling out the “large segment of society that fears and hates powerful women,” because, as mentioned above, that swath of American culture undoubtedly exists. However, she pushed her status as a victim too far when she claimed that the cyber exploitation, sexual shaming, and this sexist portion of society “combined to push a young woman out of office and say that she doesn’t belong there.”
With this assertion, Hill tries to separate herself from the crux of this issue: her poor judgment (at best) or her manipulative, potentially abusive behavior (at worst). Though the nonconsensually-released private photos, slut-shaming, and sexism in general are significant factors in Hill’s decision to resign, and though they are factors that only a queer woman would face, they do not carry the whole of the blame.
We can speculate the multitude of reasons why Hill made this decision and we can debate the validity of the reasons that she expressly gives. However, the easier, more convenient route would be to chalk up this entire scandal to sexism, homophobia, and double standards. As aforementioned, all of those components contributed critically to the weight of this issue. However, excusing Hill from all blame is a disservice to the kind of government that the American people deserve. Hill did the right thing by resigning from office, and that kind of accountability is what those young, female, politically aware Americans should prioritize.