Out of the Closet and Into the Fray, Three Views on “Outing”

Out of the Closet and Into the Fray, Three Views on “Outing”

Nancy Buermeyer, Gabriel Rotello, Urvashi Vaid

Should gay politicians and celebrities be forced to “come out?”

GABRIEl ROTELLO: Prior to the Stonewall RebBllion in 1969, homosexuality was rarely mentioned in the press. The characterization of gay sexuality as “the love that dare not speak its name” was one of society’s most powerful tools in the suppression of gays and lesbians. How could a people not acknowledged to exist, practicing a “vice” unmentionable in polite company, ever hope to achieve even minimal acceptance, let alone equality and respect? The answer was, we couldn’t.

Stonewall finally forced a substantial crack in that wall of silence. When articles about gays and lesbians appeared in the press and books claiming our legitimacy were published, gay liberation advanced significantly. If silence had equaled the death of gay consciousness, Stonewall’s noisy protest meant the beginning of life for the gay and lesbian movement.

In the 20 years since that summer night in Greenwich Village, much has improved for lesbians and gays. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have “come out” to their families, friends and employers. Gays have become part of the social landscape, often in ways undreamt of two decades ago. Laws forbidding discrimination against us have been passed, thousands of gay organizations have emerged, and we have seemed to teeter on the verge of becoming fully accepted members of society. Yet real acceptance continues to elude us. A major reason is that virtually no public figures have come out and, until now, the press has respected their wishes to remain closeted. As a result, society continues to believe that gays and lesbians consti- tute a sort of radical fringe, existing only in big city ghettos and marginal occupations. Society remains unaware that gays are everywhere. And society is certainly unaware that many of its most famous, successful, powerful and respected personalities are gay.

Now, however, a new wind is sweeping the gay and lesbian movement, a wind which threatens to blow the closet away. It’s a tactic called “outing”, the practice of pulling famous gays from their closets by making open reference in the press to their secret homosexuality.

OutWeek, a New York City gay and lesbian weekly, sparked the current debate by publishing a cover story on the gay life of the late Malcolm Forbes. Forbes was well known in New York publishing and gay circles as a homosexual, but the public had been fed a continuous diet of stories implying he was straight.

That kind of deceit in the service of the closet is exactly what many proouting gays want to see eliminated. It has come to be widely felt that as long as the press collaborates to maintain the closet, gayness will remain a secret, unmentionable vice.

To many, however, outing flies in the face of 40 years of gay and lesbian legal progress. Some in the movement argue that the right to privacy has been a primary goal of gay liberation and that outing negates that right. Others maintain that outing is inherently mean and callous, and that gays should not seek to achieve liberation by such means. Still others fear a backlash once society discovers the extent of homosexuality in its midst.

But the fundamental meaning of outing, and the reason it is both hailed and condemned with such heat, is the fact that it redefines the meaning of the gay and lesbian community.

Until now, no one ever argued that individual gays and lesbians owed anything to the community as a whole. While we maintained to straight society that we were a legitimate minority, we didn’t really act like one. The kinds of moral claims which minorities like Jews and Blacks make on their members were unknown in gay society. It was assumed that people were not gay unless they said they were, that the gay community was a purely voluntary association one could join or leave at will, and that no gay person owed an obligation to gays in general.

Those who favor outing take a different view. Outing presupposes that all who engage in primarily homosexual conduct are gay and that they owe a minimum obligation to gay society: The obligation to come out. This new assertion flies in the face of a cherished concept in gay philosophical circles that there is a difference between homosexual sexuality and gayness, that being gay is a choice, and that there are no obligations inherent in homosexuality.

Outing also turns the movement’s four-decades-old emphasis on privacy rights on its head. Outers maintain that the necessity of protecting the “privacy” (read secrecy) of homosexuality has been replaced by a necessity for proclaiming it openly. As such, those who were once hailed for defending privacy no matter what, are now seen to be obstructing the progress of gay rights by opposing frankness in the press.

Outing as a tactic has been seriously misrepresented in the mainstream press. No gay or lesbian I know advocates printing lists of famous gays, or exposing people merely for the sake of sensationalism. What we mean by outing is simply the end of the code of silence which requires reporters to lie when discussing gay or lesbian celebrities.

Respecting the ethic of the closet is never merely a sin of omission. It requires active lying to cover up a gay person’s sexuality. This kind of lying has been commonplace, especially in gossip columns and celebrity reporting.

Some have advocated targeting conservative gay politicians who oppose gay rights legislation or AIDS funding. Many gays who are generally against outing are in favor of it in these cases. The feeling is that anti-gay legislators who are privately homosexual are guilty of the same kind of hypocrisy that motivated the press to expose Jimmy Swaggart, and that it’s an issue of morality, not homosexuality.

Some argue that outing is an unconscionable invasion of privacy. But this approach ignores the recent history of American journalism. Ever since the late 1960s, it has been widely accepted that those who agree to become public figures trade their privacy for fame and fortune. The lifesblood of gossip columns, weekly celebrity magazines and tabloids has been the tragedies, embarrassments and sexual secrets of the famous. Without the willingness of the public to support this kind of writing by purchasing such information, many journals and journalists would be out of business.

It’s odd, therefore, that so many would suddenly proclaim a devotion to the sanctity of celebrities’ rights to privacy when it comes to homosexuality. In reality, respect for privacy probably has little to do with such objections. It’s more likely that many straight people are made uncomfortable by homosexuality and simply don’t want to know that famous role models are gay.

At any rate, the ending of journalistic respect for the celebrity closet marks the end of a major double standard. That double standard allows journalists to discuss almost any facet of a celebrity’s private life except homosexuality. The impression thus conveyed is that homosexuality is the worst thing in the world, worse than adultery, abuse, alcohol or drug problems, etc. Such an impression is inherently damaging to gays.

Despite the justifications for outing, many wonder what gay people expect to gain by the practice. What result could justify the possibility for harm inherent in exposing closeted gays to a hostile society?

The answer lies in journalism’s contribution to the social progress of the last few decades. In the 1950s, it was impossible to write about heterosexuals who lived together but were unmarried. Society disapproved of the practice, and journalists looked the other way when people such as movie stars “shacked up” with their lovers.

After the 1960s’ Supreme Court decisions relaxing libel laws, however, the press began to discuss such alternative domestic arrangements. The public was shocked. The careers of some celebrities, especially women, suffered. But soon a new ethic began to take over. The young began to emulate the newly revealed sexual behavior of their role models, parents began to relent, and society loosened up. Today, “living-insin” is called “domestic partnership” and is quite respectable. Such a change would never have been possible if the press had continued to cover up and hide the truth about famous lives.

Those in favor of outing feel that homophobia will go the way of heterosexual Victorian prudery once the press begins to tell the truth about famous gays. As straights discover that huge numbers of their favorite public figures are gay and lesbian, homophobia will receive its greatest challenge. It is not expected to survive.

URVASHI VAID: As is the case with nearly every aspect of lesbian and gay life, the debate over outing presents our political movement with a series of disquieting contradictions. We’ve said for years that people should come out wherever they are. Today, some of us are saying that the imperative for being visible is so great that these political considerations outweigh personal control and choice.

The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), the advocacy and organizing arm of the movement, opposes outing. Other national leaders like Barney Frank, Nan Hunter of the ACLU, and Tom Stoddard of The Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, argue that closeted gay people can forfeit their right to privacy through their hypocritical or anti-gay actions.

I pose three political arguments against the use of outing as a strategy to advance lesbian and gay freedom. Because of space limitations, issues about media hypocrisy and journalistic ethics are not discussed. The focus here is whether outing ought to be a strategy employed by lesbian and gay political activists. I think not: Because lesbian and gay liberation is a movement of empowerment, not coercion; because there is a much misunderstood and shrinking right to privacy; and because while it has been valuable in raising issues about gay and lesbian invisibility, outing as a strategy fails to touch many of the real problems faced by lesbians and gay men.

The defining characteristic of outing is coercion. Someone other than the individual involved discloses another’s sexual orientation and compels her/ him to admit or deny their homosexuality. We have argued powerfully that society should affirm every individual’s control over sexual and reproductive choices. Now, some claim that these principles become irrelevant because of high public profile and/or political power. A movement in battle against heterosexist society’s compulsory norm now seeks to enforce a new compulsion upon public figures — come out or we will do it for you.

While I recognize that the closet can itself be seen as a coercive tool whose effect is to keep lesbians and gay men invisible and disempowered, I believe that coercion should not be the tactic employed by our movement, particularly when the coercive power of the community is brought to bear upon one of its own. Why?

The culture we live in forces us to live with injustice and inequality as a government-enforced norm. It enforces racism through its biased social policies. It enforces a dual standard of justice for those who are not white, not rich, not heterosexual. It enforces women’s subjugation. Much of our movement’s liberation politics and political work has been about displacement of the coercive power of the state with an empowered body politic. We have focused on individual and community empowerment, on grassroots organizing, on acknowledging and building from our diversity. Outing replaces empowerment with coercion. Proponents argue that these are extreme times and that we must take extreme measures. This has a familiar Ollie North and Barry Goldwater-ish ring to it (extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice). Do we want freedom or fear as cornerstones of our movement? Do we want to be a movement that claims space for all lesbians and gay men or do we want to punish closeted gay people for their failure to be politically aware?

A second argument against outing revolves around the right to privacy. The right to privacy is a vulnerable and bitterly contested concept. There is no constitutional provision that explicitly guarantees it. And the conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court have systematically limited and gnawed at individual privacy rights. In situations as disparate as the freedom of each individual from warrantless searches and seizures by police officers, to wiretapping cases, to the limitations on women’s wombs imposed by Webster, to Hardwick’s claim that there is no constitutional right to privacy to engage in consensual private adult sexual conduct if one is with a partner of the same sex—the Supreme Court has systematically expanded the power of the state over the domain many of us would argue belongs to the individual.

I think it is wrong for us to argue that the government grant us the control to make our sexual, reproductive and personal choices when we are unwilling to allow each other to do the same. The operative concept is control, and where it should rest. Yes, a public figure gives up some measure of control over her/his private life. But every individual, public or private, should keep the right to say no or yes in decisions affecting their sexual or reproductive lives. Activists seeking to force people from the closet stand in the same moral position as Supreme Court justices who supported Georgia’s right to ban homosexual conduct in its sodomy law. The coercive power of the community should not replace the coercive power of the state.

But, what about hypocrites like Terry Dolan? As hateful as Terry Dolan was to us, we are just as hateful to many in our society. Assuming that I were in the closet in key parts of my life, how would our movement’s outing of Dolan be different from some right-wing zealot’s outing of me to my family or my employer or my community newspaper? It would not be different. They would justify it morally, and I would be guilty as charged of being a hypocrite because I did not acknowledge my sexual orientation. Our political movement cannot ignore that when we support outing and insist that the media cover our allegations of someone else’s sexuality, we give license to our enemies to do the same. In this scenario, the Republican National Committee could release any number of memos claiming candidates as gay/ lesbian and preying on homophobia to insure their defeat. The public/private figure distinction cannot be maintained in the long run.

Ultimately, outing seems to accomplish much more than it in fact does. In many ways the tactic refocuses our work as activists on a strategy that both does not challenge what we fight against ideologically nor yield results practically. Outing does not challenge homophobia, the pervasive attitude of hatred and contempt with which lesbians and gay men are faced each day. Rather, outing depends upon homophobia for its success. News of a politician’s sexual orientation is news because it could be politically damaging in many contexts; it is titillation when it involves celebrities. Closeted gay politicians are not the cause of homophobia, they are its exhibits.

Outing is a strategy that is aimed at “legitimation”. We argue that our movement should aim for liberation, not mere legitimacy. Access and acceptance are not the ultimate goals of gay and lesbian activists. Full freedom and the accompanying transformation of political and social institutions to enable us to enjoy this freedom is what we seek.

Finally, proponents of outing claim the supposed benefit of role models. But is Malcolm Forbes a better role model of a successful gay man than Armistead Maupin or Bayard Rustin? I think not. Forbes, like other closeted conservatives before him (Roy Cohn, Terry Dolan), stands for the kind of greed and dishonesty that causes Burroughs Wellcome to overcharge for AZT and causes other business leaders to oppose national health care. Claiming him as one of our own does everything to titillate a homo-hating and sexually repressed public’s obsession with the sex lives of famous people. The debate about outing has one uncontested value. It is provoking a reexamination of the status quo of the closet in many lesbian and gay lives. But outing every celebrity will not convince the literally millions of lesbians and gay men who lead closeted lives, unconnected to the political movement that labors for freedom, to join, to send money or to speak out and be counted. Only the far less glamorous and daily work of grassroots political organizing, constituency and movement building that is true to its goals in principle and practice will achieve what we have set out to do.

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to liberation.

Gabriel Rotello is the Editor-in-Chief of OutWeek magazine.

Urvashi Vaid is the Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in Washington, DC.