Who’s the victim here?

It would be easy to regard Idaho Sen. Larry Craig as just another right-wing hypocrite espousing so-called “family values” while secretly cruising for anonymous gay sex. And most Democrats are no doubt happy to see this conservative Republican get his comeuppance.

But it’s a sad situation, nonetheless. The senator is clearly a painfully conflicted man who has lived a double life, and it would be cold-hearted not to feel some compassion for him. After more than a quarter-century of service to his party, he was suddenly a pariah, friendless, without an ally in the world. That had to hurt.

By Idaho standards, Craig was a reasonably good representative, which is why voters returned him to office so many times. He worked hard, he shared most Idahoans’ values (which include opposition to gay marriage), and he brought home the bacon. But even if he had wanted to be honest about his sexuality, it was impossible to be out of the closet in such a conservative state and remain in politics.

Men like Craig who have secret lives are constantly balancing their sexual longings and their fear of being exposed. Craig’s mistake was that, in an effort to try to escape public notice, he pleaded guilty to “disorderly conduct"–a decision he reportedly is now reconsidering.

And, really, what crime did he commit? It’s clear that he was involved in a conversation of sorts involving various signals that would have led to sex, but it was a set of consensual negotiations that both parties accepted. Who’s the victim here? Public sex is certainly a public nuisance, but criminalizing consensual behavior is worse, leading to the destruction of reputations and families as well as blackmail and extortion.

Ultimately, Craig was a victim of America’s—and his own—lingering homophobia. We can only hope that the day soon comes when an openly homosexual candidate can run for U.S. Senate in Idaho—or anywhere, for that matter—and be judged not on the basis of his or her sexual orientation, but rather on the basis of talent, experience, track record and ideas.