Happy New Year! Here’s some gossip. Did you know that two extremely homophobic men who served, in the last decade, as prime ministers of their respective European nations were actually gay? So was the son of a dictator lately deposed in the Arab Spring – as well as two of the old tyrant’s cabinet ministers, which practically makes a harem quorum. Then there are the two Middle Eastern monarchs (why do these all seem to come in pairs?) who are, you know, queens of the male gender. And there’s the immensely famous Hollywood actor – not Tom Cruise, maybe twenty years older – who shows up at supersecret elite gay parties featuring ultradiscreet hustlers for the closeted and fabulously wealthy. But don’t forget the internationally known gay rights activist who’s actually straight; he’s never even slept with a man; his nice “lesbian” roommate is his girlfriend.
Now! All those stories are true except one – one I made up, to keep it interesting. They’re true, I mean, in the sense that with that lone exception I was truly told them, by people who seemed to be in some position to know; true, therefore, in the same sense most truths you share with other people are “true.” (I can’t prove airplanes are held up by air currents, rather than elves living under the wings; but folks who say so are reputed to be expert.) I know the names of those sneaky closet types, too; but I’m not going to tell you, because I’m a mean bastard. But you’d love to hear, wouldn’t you? I bet you’re already guessing. Which one do you want to find out the most? The least?
Two pieces of news got me off on this kick this holiday season. One is about the dead. Did you know Richard Nixon was gay? A new book, Nixon’s Darkest Secrets: The Inside Story of America’s Most Troubled President, by Don Folsom, says as much. A White House reporter dropped some silverware at an official dinner, and, bending to retrieve it, saw the President and longtime buddy Bebe Rebozo holding hands under the table. There’s plenty of equally ironclad proof; the men’s peculiar intimacy even aroused curiosity in the much more reticent press of the time, since an thick odor of crookedness hung round Rebozo, hardly making him explicable compadre material for the leader of the free world. No one seems happy about this revelation. Rick Santorum must now realize the homosexual jihadists have ruled the roost for more decades than he imagined, since they had their talons so long ago in the Defender of the West. Larry Kramer must feel he was a very bad boy this year. He wanted Abraham Lincoln; instead, he got this lump of coal.
Since I came to this story late, I assume the Tricky Dick jokes are all taken. But then there’s Ricky’s Tricks. Rick Perry, the slavering right-wing governor of Texas and presidential candidate, the one with the hair, is gay. So says Glen Maxey, the first openly gay member of the Texas state legislature, in a new self-published book, Head Figure Head: The Search for the Hidden Life of Rick Perry.
I haven’t read it. I don’t know if it’s true. Ace reporter Doug Ireland is hawking its veracity on Facebook, which offers strong if not conclusive evidence that it’s humbug. A review on Gawker says Maxey’s investigation “was conducted, oddly, mostly through Facebook messages and chats,” which jibes with Doug’s mode of carrying out human rights research in his living room. Anyone who knows Doug’s creative oeuvre can hear his voice in the following lament:
Maxey can be a little naïve about why The Huffington Post spiked the story [about his findings]. He complains almost relentlessly about how much work went into it—at least two months … —as if this alone should give HuffPo the impetus to publish his account. He doesn’t seem to understand what hearsay is, and when confronted about this, says simply, “I’m not a journalist.”
Fellow Texan rumormonger John R. Selig has put an interview with the author online in three long, long podcasts. That’s three hours of two Texans talking about sex! I couldn’t listen.
The quotes on Gawker do make the book sound like a great trashfest.
“He jerked down his shorts,” [James said], “It lasted about a minute. He had a little dick. It was the worst fuck of my life. And on top of it all he stunk because he had been jogging. He then pulled up his shorts and put the used condom in his pocket. … Oh my God,” thought James. “I just got fucked by Rick Perry!”
All these torrents of truth, though, have made me think about something I haven’t for a long while: Outing. What are the ethical implications? Is it ever right? Ever wrong? What liberty do we have to hypocrisy, and what obligations to others’ privacy? As Marlene Dietrich groans at the end of Touch of Evil –another film about a Texas politician — “What can you ever say about anybody?” Right on, Marlene!
I’ll start with an earlier question. Who, among those closet cases, excited your curiosity the most? The Hollywood actor, right? I mean politicians are well and good. But stars … they’re all publicity, all surface. The burnished sheen of the broadcast image is so overpowering that it creates its own counter-hunger to find out what’s beneath it. Every role they act and every photoshoot they grace breeds the tabloid story or the probing paparazzi purporting to tell what’s really true. (The private lives of genuine actors, who aspire to be humanity in its frail diversity rather than icons of the ideal, are so much less interesting than the stars’. Who cares that Cherry Jones is a lesbian? Who wouldn’t care if Angelina Jolie were?) And of course, if the truth unearthed diminishes them, all the better. Knock them off that pedestal! Prove the hetero sex god is a pushy bottom! We want the secret, and we want it dirty.
Which leads to the one you’re surely least interested in: the gay rights activist. Who cares about activists? There’s nothing fun about their lives, believe me. But there’s another aspect. What is scandalous about someone being … normal? The sole thing remarkable is that there’d be a reason to hide it. It could only raise eyebrows if the guy pretended to be ex-gay and sold out to the conversion crowd. (Attention, Exodus International: I am taking offers at my private e-mail.) Outing is not a two-way street. The scandal comes when the ordinary is stripped off to reveal the strange: not the other way round.
Moreover, not only does homosexuality derive its interest from being non-normative, abnormal, it is actually more powerful than the normal. We accord it the infectious quality of a pathology: of a disease. So if the “gay” activist were to come out as straight, a lot of us simply wouldn’t believe it. Of course he’s really gay! You don’t spend a life’s work on homosexuality without there being something there. At a minimum, someone would tell you the activist is “performatively” queer: in a universe of roles, he’s acted this out with success. Again, it is intriguing that this only works in one direction. To play the part of queerness even once gives you an identity that amounts to ontic. When Rick Perry (1 wife, 3 kids) or Ted Haggard (1 to 5), or Larry Craig (1, 3 adopted) is caught in man-sex, or reported to be caught, or caught trying, the story is not that they’re performatively straight with a short lapse from character, or bisexual, or questioning, or experimenting: they’re gay, enough said. Hundreds of episodes of uncontroversial heterosexual copulation can’t erase the identifying force of that one abortive time in the bathroom. Heterosexuals would tend to agree with the gays on this one; but most of the gays are absolute in their certainty. As Larry Kramer explained about his obsession with Lincoln (1 wife, 4 kids) — based on his sharing a bed with a man, no further elaboration:
“There’s no question in my mind he was a gay man and a totally gay man … It wasn’t just a period, but something that went on his whole life.”
No Texan ever descanted of the Rapture with more conviction.
This assumption that one act makes you gay cements homosexual desire as the mark of minority status. It’s opposed to the insight –equally the property of Freudian and feminist theory — that it’s a subversive potential in most people, a power thrumming under the bland meadows of compulsory heterosexuality like a postponed earthquake or a patient geyser. That is a limiting, constricting vision of what our desires are able to do.
The main point I want to make, though, is this. As activists, we devise plenty of excuses for outing. But the strength that drives it is still shame.
In outing, the closet speaks through us. (And by “us,” I mean all my fellow queers to some degree, not just the activists.) The act reflects our own insecurity that homosexuality is non-normal. Even the certainty with which we assert that one gay incident makes you gay for life involves no actual dynamics of identity or sexuality, but stigma: the belief that a single transgression marks you permanently as endless reiterations of rightness never can. It’s consonant with the racist faith that one drop of “inferior” blood corrupts generations of offspring, that a Gentile woman’s hour-long dalliance with a Jew renders her a pariah to the Volk. It’s the hatred instilled inside us that drives our obsession with the “truth.”
Outing is still explicitly a tool of hate. It’s still used by homophobes to undermine those they dislike. The US right has mustered rumors of homosexuality against Ann Richards, Hillary Clinton, Janet Reno, Pat Schroeder, and many more. (It’s interesting how right-wing murmurs seem to target women, while gay activists mostly out the men. Are there no closeted conservative lesbians to stalk? Do you really believe Condi Rice is dating Jack Donaghy?) It’s almost subterranean, but there is persistent buzz in Tea Party circles that Barack Obama is gay. Why else would Rush Limbaugh repeatedly demand that his former girlfriends “come forward”? The implication is they don’t exist: among the many lies of the Kenyan-in-chief is his masculinity, while Michelle – with that fabled, telltale musculature – is a convenient beard.
But how exactly are gays’ outings of right-wing homophobes, as a tactic meant to discredit, so different?
To be sure, there are plenty of good rationales for outing. Take Blogactive.com: the site of activist Mike Rogers, who devotes his enviable energies to flaying lying politicians he considers homophobes. He’s found plenty of stuff: he posted audio of a Republican congressman talking on a gay chat line, and the fundamentalist schmuck resigned. The website offers what’s now the standard two-step explanation: preemptive apology, then justification.
People are entitled to privacy and the exposure of someone’s sexual orientation without their permission is unacceptable to me. Reporting on the hypocrisy of those who represent us in government? That’s an entirely different matter.
The just-retribution-for-hypocrisy argument is widely used. But look whose pictures are up on Rogers’ site right now. (Admittedly, their outing wasn’t Rogers’ own work, but they suggest standards he applies.) They include:
- The GOP mayor of Medford, NJ , who resigned after an anonymous male escort claimed on the net the man paid him for sex. I don’t see any indication the mayor was especially homophobic –just married, and Republican. (Looking elsewhere, though, I notice l the mayor had actually opposed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.)
- The GOP former sheriff of Arapahoe County, AZ, who went to jail for allegedly offering meth to a man in exchange for sex. The hypocrisy on drugs is clear, but I don’t see evidence he was hypocritical about gays. Another website claims he was a “major contributor” to Marilyn Musgrave, a congresswoman who sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But this seems to have been someone with the same name, a urologist in Greeley.
Doug Ireland offered a slightly sharper-toothed criterion in outing David Dreier, a closeted Republican House member. First the apology—“I have always taken the view that outing a gay person should be approached with caution”— but then Ireland added that hypocrisy had to be harmful:
… in doing so one should strictly adhere to the Barney Frank Rule. As articulated by the openly gay Massachusetts congressman …when Frank threatened to out a number of gay-baiting Republican fellow congressmen, the rule insists that outing is only acceptable when a person uses their power or notoriety to hurt gay people. [emphasis added]
(Barney himself dismissed Dreier rather nicely. When asked if the man lost a Republican leadership post because he was too moderate, Frank replied, “Yes, in the sense that I marched in the moderate pride parade last summer and went to a moderate bar.”)
But the problem is how you define “hurt.” This brings to mind one of my tussles with Peter Tatchell on a queer listserve, when I said I disliked outing and he evinced outrage. “There is no human right to hypocrisy,” Tatchell intoned. I answered, of course there is. It’s called the right to privacy, and it’s enshrined in most of the international treaties. Privacy protects not just your right to keep a sphere of your life secret, but to keep it different; to lie about what is going on there if you’re so inclined; to defend yourself against prigs who insist that your public face and your existence behind four walls align exactly in ideology, practices, and values; to contradict yourself, and contain multitudes who don’t necessarily get along. The main moral limit is that you not conceal what hurts people. The right to privacy has been the first principle on which courts have overturned sodomy laws, worldwide.
It is, in fact, a weak right in international law. The covenants allow states to infringe it, to protect (among other reasons) “public morals.” One of the arguments proponents of sodomy laws mount has been that private homosexual conduct does hurt people. It threatens public morals – reasoning that’s resonated with publics from Houston to Harare. Opponents have countered this not only by contending no, it doesn’t, but by going at the meaning of the “morals” exception – trying to devise a less sweeping, more specific definition of harm.
A couple of years ago, my colleague Ali Miller and I worked on a brief for the European Court of Human Rights, in a Turkish censorship case. We maintained that, to demonstrate harm to public morals, governments needed not just to allege some general damage, but to identify particular victims and prove the hurt. We wrote:
“[P]ublic morality” arguments are acceptable only where some real and specific harm to society can be shown. … Authorities may not criminalise and confiscate publications without demonstrating what harm it causes to what part of the “public,” when, and where, and tailor any restrictions to any specific harm. Authorities cannot evade that responsibility by postulating a “public” and its hypothetical values as a pre-emptive and dangerously free-floating excuse … Laws are moving away from 19th century ideas of the protection of “public morality” and toward a more limited purpose of addressing instances of specific harm. The broad justifications that supported [these] laws when they developed are insupportable in a modern legal regime of rights.
That’s a criterion in law – here applied to obscenity, but equally applicable to cases where the state proposes to punish private acts. But I contend a version should apply in personal, ethical decisions about when an individual (or a website or a TV show) can intrude in someone else’s privacy.
It’s not enough to posit that their public acts were “harmful.” You need to think through whom they harmed and how; whether the harm was directed and intended, or simply the byproduct of a comparatively innocent action or association – mere belonging to a political party, say, or a church; and, most importantly, whether the outing will stop the harm. Will it succor the victims? Will it shut the speakers up? Or will hate carry on? — in which case the outing has no aim but vengeance.
The sheriff and the mayor don’t qualify, in my book. Outing Republicans just because they are Republicans is similarly not kosher; or Catholics because they are Catholics; or Muslims – you get the point. Peter Tatchell himself spent part of the 90s sending odd letters to MPs and Church of England bishops whom he suspected of being gay. The missives flirted with the legal definition of blackmail:
“Although Outrage! had been passed a lot of detailed information about your personal life which would have enabled us to confidently name you…we chose not to do so.”
One MP keeled over dead. A bishop, David Hope, went public with the letter, accusing Tatchell of intimidation in a “profoundly disturbing campaign.” One wonders about the rationale here as well. Is mere membership in a Church hierarchy that, as a whole, regards homosexuality as a sin sufficient to convict one of “hypocrisy”? Can’t one have a genuine religious faith without agreeing with all the Church’s stances? Can’t one even regard oneself sincerely as a sinner — and in addition to shame and penitence, perhaps derive compassion from the fact?
And then there’s Rick Perry. The man has been steadfast in his misbehavior. His longtime defense of Texas’s sodomy law was bad. His recent ad about his struggle against the homosexual agenda was … well, bad too. If there’s actual evidence, outing him would be justified.
But his campaign’s over. Today’s Iowa caucuses will probably mark the end. For someone touted five months ago as inevitable, he’s been a bigger flop than Ishtar. Do his miserable, halting performances have something to do with his fear of exposure, his seizing up in the glare of scrutiny? If so, he’s punished himself out of contention. A few days ago, asked about Lawrence v Texas – the sodomy case he took to the Supreme Court – he stammered, whitening, that he didn’t know what it was. That feels like a pitiable giveaway. I’d say, at this point: leave him alone.
Any impetus to outing should be an occasion for self-examination. We need to parse our aims. There’s the practical goal of defanging and disarming those who inflict harm. But there’s the moralistic one of inflicting, as judge and jury, punishment. Do we want to take the sting out of their arguments by showing they’re false — or demolish them personally, using the very shame they attach to homosexual conduct as a weapon? Activists don’t run courts, and shouldn’t carry out executions. The first aim is reasonable. The second is not just destructive but, to the extent it mobilizes homophobia, self-destructive.
Still, I believe, revenge remains the most common if unacknowledged motive for outing. And the yen for revenge is undiscriminating. The desire extends to anyone who’s hidden. It reaches beyond the errant politicians; it takes in the obscure but grapples for the famous, all those who haven’t hurt anybody, just failed to be the selves we think we know. At heart, I’m afraid, we remember hiding, and we want, as payback, to humiliate those who hide.
Plenty of us are still the closet’s victims. It’s conspicuous how the outers, and the people who’ve leaped on the Perry story, are folks my age and older – Ireland, John Selig, others. We’re the generation for whom self-concealment was a dark reality for too long a time. My own emergence from the closet was halting, stilted, fraught with fear and bad examples. When I was seventeen — how well I recall! — Robert Bauman, a conservative Republican politician, was caught cruising. Disgraced, defeated for re-election, he disappeared, career crushed. That outing hardly provided me with an inspiring role model (another argument once adduced in favor of dragging famous figures out of their closets kicking and screaming). It scared the hell out of me.
At eighteen, I finally came out to myself, in an agonized diary entry, scrawled in red ink as though I had extracted blood: it took me five pages of circumlocution to say, finally, “I am gay.” It was six months more till I first had sex with a man, an experience that led in the longer run to love, in the short term to vomiting. And not for another four years, after slowly coming out to friends (and making new ones) did I tell my father — who almost immediately cut me out of his life for the next quarter century, until he died.
No wonder that, having lived so long behind a fake façade, I spend so much time wondering what lies and lives underlie others’ fronts and faces.
But the closet is only one way of constructing sexuality, enclosing one side of it with secrets. It’s not universal; nor is it immovable. The peculiar complex of secrecy, shame, and curiosity it encompasses can be done away with. In the US, it’s changing. New cohorts have moved beyond what our dying generations had to offer, our obsessions and our songs. I meet kids at fourteen who are out to their parents; kids whose families encourage truth. The closet has by no means vanished (and in other countries, different forms cling to different power); but sexuality is way less “private.” Not because people have been outed. Because they came out themselves.
Privacy is not just constructed by what we want to hide. It’s also built round what we fear other people want to know. There’s a dialectic; privacy depends on intrusion to define itself. People defend their sexualities from prying eyes because the eyes are interested. And, by the same token, as long as sexuality – especially difference in sexuality – stays shameful, we’ll keep longing to know about the movie star, the dictator’s son, the sultan. But as sexuality becomes less fearful, less shameful, it will also be less interesting. Younger folks, I’ve found, had a more mature attitude to Perry than many of their elders. His dumb ad attracted more dislikes than any video ever on YouTube: but they focused on substance, not hypocrisy. The disgrace was what he said, not any contradiction in saying it. It will be a happy day when homophobia is treated as equally disgraceful even if the homophobes are straight.
Of course, as homosexual desire becomes more normal, less interesting, we lose something too. It becomes less powerful and subversive. It’s less a quantity you can frighten the oppressor with – the oppressor is moving on — less something you can assert an arrogant uniqueness around and through: but less something you can learn from, too, less that protean skill at shape-changing that doesn’t abridge an inner integrity, less that Archimedean lever hung in space from which an introverted adolescent imagines she’ll move the world.
I confess I’ve clung to that capacity for subversion, which is also – by paradox – the memory of the closetedness and pain. So have many others. Listen to queers on the left talk about how their early insight into their own difference made them question revealed truth and really existing society, doubt hierarchies and privileges, feel their critical separation from the world as it was. That distance was loss, but it was also freedom. It gave loneliness, but it also offered knowledge. The less you have to overcome shame, the less you’ll understand how wrong it is; the less injustice overshadows your youth, the less you’ll recognize it in later years. A subtle apprehension of how the life we’re endowed with is ailing will be denied you.
But what can you do? As long as there’s something to fight, there must be the little battlefields where people learn resistance. Your own ephemeral gift of difference may lose its meaning, but difference itself remains. The quicksilver, elusive capacity for subversion will move on, you hope, will settle in some other locus now despised and rejected, some other quirk or quality, indifferent in itself, that injustice in its irrationality targets. It had better. The world needs subverting.