“Weeping,” a South African anti-apartheid song, sung by Vusi Mahlasela

Donald Trump was was not elected despite universal disbelief that it was possible. He was elected because of universal disbelief that it was possible. The most crucial factor in his resistible rise was the profound faith that it couldn’t happen here. I shared this; I was as punch-drunk as anybody by midnight Tuesday. But the blitheness had been almost everywhere; and what kind of unreal vision of the United States, and of our strange moment in history, did it show?

There are thousands of examples but I’ll restrict myself to the field of punditry. Back in February, Jonathan Chait — who now, accurately, says “Collaborating With Donald Trump Is Doomed to Fail” — wrote that liberals should “earnestly and patriotically support a Trump Republican nomination”

The first [reason], of course, is that he would almost certainly lose. Trump’s ability to stay atop the polls for months, even as critics predicted his demise, has given him an aura of voodoo magic that frightens some Democrats. But whatever wizardry Trump has used to defy the laws of political gravity has worked only within his party. Among the electorate as a whole, he is massively — indeed, historically — unpopular …

At that point, Trump was running 3.4 points behind Clinton in the Real Clear Politics polling average, not a number suggesting the ironclad historical inevitability of defeat. Come May, George Packer in the New Yorker wrote that “Democrats probably won’t need the votes of the white working class to win this year. Demographic trends favor the party, as does the bloated and hateful persona of the Republican choice.” When that appeared, Trump was 3.1 points behind, and gaining. And the day before the election, the New York Times devoted a long, detectably gleeful article to describing “Trump’s Last Stand,” painting the desperate “neediness and vulnerability of a once-boastful candidate now uncertain of victory.” Thirty-six hours later, the vulnerable loser was President-elect of the United States.


Too soon: Cover for New York Magazine‘s election issue (published October 31, 2016), by Barbara Kruger

The willful blindness, the willingness to treat a tiny and tenuous lead in unreliable polls as a promissory note for a future landslide, infected almost everybody — from journalists to diehard Democrats to disaffected non-voters to, possibly, Donald Trump himself. There was, clearly, a faith in the historical process, a belief that a country that elected Barack Obama twice had put itself on a certain course irreversibly. In fact, Dr. King’s overquoted assurance about how the arc of history bends might be valid for the longue durée, but it wasn’t a guide to betting on the elections of 1980, or 1994, or 2010. Even many right-wingers, though, saw Trump as far too radical a break from the going neoliberal consensus to have a chance. Then there was a very standard ignorance that people you don’t know might have a different take on things — thus the Times‘ Nick Kristof, completely unable to locate an actual Trump voter in the 10018 zip code, had to interview an imaginary one. Finally, there was a touching faith in the United States itself, in the goodness of its people and its institutions (“If you step outside the pall of the angry campaign rhetoric, you see that America’s institutions are generally quite strong,” David Brooks wrote, with Trump just six points down and rising). This was particularly poignant among the Left, often accused of hating America but in truth especially insistent that it could never go that wrong.

Which America, though? To call Trump a breach with the United States’ traditions is to lop half those traditions from the field of view.

"Through a Looking Glass Darkly" by Mr. Fish (, 2013

“Through a Looking Glass Darkly” by Mr. Fish, 2013. (Please see comment below for some more information about the portrait’s source.)

Racism and rage are older than the Republic, and they’ve never been in hiding. They are only-sometimes-latent possibilities in American life, part of the permanent repertory of rhetorics that politicians and entertainers call upon, part of the cache of emotions for citizens to feel (and fear), constant forces waiting for circumstances to unleash them. The assumption that all this hatred shrank to inanition through some combination of Obama, Lena Dunham, and Will and Grace was self-defeating. Trump is not “unprecedented“; nor does he represent a past that, as Clinton kept saying, we “can’t go back” to. He’s part of us, then and now. In living memory, George Wallace struck nearly all the notes in the Trump octave, down to the strutting, preening, boorish machismo (his famous threat to give a recalcitrant judge “a barbed-wire enema” could have come out of Trump’s mouth). Wallace never made it near the Presidency. but he got 45 electoral votes. The man he helped make President, Richard Nixon, added to a subdued version of Wallace’s racism a deep paranoia, a passionate adoration of foreign dictators, and a profound reliance on the indigenous surveillance state. It’s hard to remember this now, but a lot of sensible Americans believed that the United States was careening toward fascist politics and authoritarian rule under the Divine Milhous in 1972 — and that only the Watergate scandal forestalled it. A good many on the Left have been comparing Trump to a “Third World dictator.” It’s an insult to a Third World that give rise to Thomas Sankara, to Nelson Mandela, to Salvador Allende, to Jawaharlal Nehru. (It also echoes Trump himself, who repeatedly said the United States was becoming a “Third World country.”) But it has a scrap of truth if you mean the kind of kleptomaniacal, deadly autocrats the democratic, idealistic US has inflicted on its hapless allies in the global South for decades. Trump’s corruption, his shadowy relations with an overweening foreign power, and his alliance with domestic security cadres like the FBI suggest a regime worthy of Cold-War Guatemala. And that’s not “un-American”; it’s of the Americas, of us. It’s our history, too.

I don’t underestimate Trump’s threat. Wallace was defeated by the limitations of his regional appeal, by a still-resilient Democratic Party, and by the need of a suburban bourgeoisie to take its racism in slightly more civil form. Nixon’s undoing was an opposition Congress. Trump faces none of these things. His lust for power is enormous. There’s very little to stop him — so much for those “American institutions.” The menace of fascist authoritarianism is very real. Trump is a perfect storm, where all the foulest impulses in the national life come together with no visible check or balance. There is a lot of talk now about the dangers of “normalizing” Trump, treating his Presidency as if it were business as usual. The real “normalization,” though, happened during the campaign: treating the daily life of the United States as though placidity, “conflict resolution,” and consensus were the way things always had been and should be. This is an insane thing to think about the country at any time, but particularly in a year when police violence was on full display, when Guantánamo was still a going concern, when just over the rainbow the state was killing people in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. We only start to understand Trump when we see these horrors as the unwritten constitution of the “normal.”

The US left is now in crisis yet again, this time arguing whether Trump’s victory should be ascribed to racism tout simple or to rage at the impoverishment of the white working class. It’s an important argument so far as it informs the question What do we do next? But it’s useless when conducted on Facebook where everything turns into either-or. Racism is not an abstract entity separable from historical circumstances. It is extremely concrete; the pressure it exerts on individual bodies, individual lives, is drawn from specific and immediate conditions that rouse it, shape it, use it, and give it strength. There is a long history in the United States of politicians channeling economic powerlessness into racist fantasies of power; local caudillos such as Tom Watson, or Theodore Bilbo, or Frank Rizzo knew exactly how to work this in their neighborhoods, on their streets. It’s better, though not entirely exact, to think of racism through the metaphor of latency again: as a set of possibilities immanent in the United States, waiting for the particular junctures where they can become not just potential but actual, can feed on blood. These are possibilities immanent in people, also, in the repertory of dreams and delusions available to every white person (and probably to many people of color). If Donald Trump sets up his Muslim registry, I can indulge the fantasy of marching to City Hall and putting my name on it, preferably while flashbulbs explode like excited Valkyries. Or I can fantasize about informing on the undocumented Pakistani store clerk who shortchanged me. Both fantasies are dangerous, in very different ways. Neither has much to do with reality — Trump’s registry is likely to be a subtler thing, specific to immigrants in ways that will obviate white-savior illusions, and less reliant on pliant informers than on invisible electronic surveillance. My point is, though, that the reality of unrestrained state power in which more and more of us will live, will oblige us to examine ourselves unsparingly, with a cold eye toward our motives and our dreams. An inner moral rigor resists power even as it runs the risk of reproducing it; it is the only recourse when everything else calls out for compromise. Trumpism will work by universalizing mistrust. Part of the necessary response is to mistrust oneself.

"Go Back to Sleep, America, Nothing to See Here," by Mr. Fish (, 2016

“Go Back to Sleep, America, Nothing to See Here,” by Mr. Fish, 2016

But it’s not just personal. Economics counts, and a left that can’t address this isn’t a left. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 was probably the largest transfer of wealth from poor to rich in human history, a massive expropriation of the already-expropriated. We are still living with the consequences. (Despite all the pity accorded poor white people in the last week, the most acute suffering the collapse caused fell upon people of color. This doesn’t delegitimate the anger of the white working class, many of whose hopes and present realties were also destroyed. It does remind us again that racism divides capitalism’s victims not just from one another, but from reality.) What if, as Paul Rosenberg asks, Obama had taken even small steps toward tangible justice in his first year in office: prosecuting the culpable crooks in the financial industry, bailing out homeowners the way the Treasury did Wall Street, securing union rights instead of colluding in their destruction? Would the African-American as well as the white working class have felt a confidence that transcended the vicissitudes of identity politics, and turned out in sufficient numbers to defeat Trump? It’s not enough to say “We’ll never know.” People on the left know what is right. They shouldn’t allow the persistent sense that Obama is a decent man to derogate the certainty of what should have been done then, or to deflect from what has to happen now. Justice is not “normal” in the United States, but it needs to be.

"Dead End," by Mr. Fish, 2016

“Dead End,” by Mr. Fish, 2016

We also need to scrap the palliative fiction that Trump’s populism, which turns economic fears into racist terror, is some sort of blow to neoliberalism or the “elites.” Divide and conquer is the classic strategy of capitalism in power, and that’s true whether the power rests with Ruhr industrialists or New York investment bankers. Trumpism is perfectly consistent with this. Fredric Jameson points out that “today, all politics is about real estate“:

Postmodern politics is essentially a matter of land grabs, on a local as well as a global scale. Whether you think of the question of Palestine, the settlements and the camps, or of the politics of raw materials and extraction; whether you think of ecology (and the rain forests) or the problems of federalism, citizenship, and immigration; or whether it is a question of gentrification in the great cities as well in the bidonvilles, the favelas and the townships and of course the movement of the landless — today everything is about land.

You can add Standing Rock, or Julius Malema; it’s absolutely true. The world is full. Capitalism has seized and commodified nearly all the land on earth, with the exception of Amazonia, some scattered areas of tribal or indigenous commons (now being stolen by police and the World Bank), and a few national parks. The space for expansion is gone; what’s left is to battle over what’s already branded, owned. No coincidence, then, that the most powerful engine of the world economy will now be ruled by a real-estate magnate, whose only skill is stamping his personal brand on things, a grotesque version of private property as pure performance. No one is better qualified than this idiot to wage capitalism’s war over control of space, to defend its hard-thieved acres and squirrelled-away square feet, to keep the rents too damn high.

Democracy in the United States was predicated, for its first two centuries or so, on land (once taken from its original users) being plentiful and cheap, and labor (at least in its free forms) scarce and expensive. These conditions slowly built a stable, somewhat contented working class who could bargain collectively, join the bourgeoisie, afford to own things. Since the 1960s, in the neoliberal ascendancy, there’s been an immense reversal. Land — or, more properly, space, whether farmland or a downtown loft — is in short supply and increasingly expensive. Meanwhile, there’s more than enough labor for the skewed new economy, and real wages have kept falling. This is how Trump made his indeterminate millions. It means an economy of massive inequality, misery, and hyperexploitation. It means the end of the apparent stability of the United States. The politics of such a lifeworld are inherently unstable. As Mike Davis has repeatedly shown, the burgeoning dispossessed will be a constant threat to the possessions of their dispossessors. The state will use more and more violence to protect the property of those who sustain it. Repression will become more and more continuous and constant; resistance will find fewer and fewer spaces to survive. Donald Trump is the ideal leader for this new world of walls and cowards. He is the ideal weapon.

We are in a violent new era, and we are not sure how to live. We will have to educate ourselves in many things we thought we knew. We will have to learn a different kind of speech: one that shocks but not mindlessly, one that has a purpose, one for those who are not our friends or our fellow believers. We will have to reach outside our arrogance and our need for comfort. We will have to relearn old lessons of patience, cunning, and endurance. We will have to humble ourselves before those who have fought this kind of fight before; suddenly, the lessons of Andijan or Mohamed Mahmoud Street may mean more to people in Seattle or Atlanta than they ever thought possible. For myself, I sit round thinking of Auden:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.
              (“Spain,” 1937)

Or Brecht:

It takes a lot of things to change the world:
Anger and tenacity. Science and indignation,
The quick initiative, the long reflection,
The cold patience and the infinite perseverance,
The understanding of the particular case and the
understanding of the ensemble:
Only the lessons of reality can teach us to transform reality.
                (“Einverständnis,” 1929)


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Rick Perry’s hot manmeat makes me cream my jeans, and other fallacies: Thoughts about outing

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?

Rebozo, Nixon, and Henry Kissinger: Fetch Cambodia, Henry! Fetch!

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.

a caption really would be pointless, don’t you think?

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!”

There is also a rumor that in 2004 Perry’s wife caught him screwing the Secretary of State (not Colin Powell; Texas has its own Secretary of State, it seems). I’m happy to know that these days Texas officials are mating with each other, rather than with humankind. The last Texans in high authority who were unqualified members of homo sapiens, and entitled to intercourse with the rest of us without an intervention from the SPCA, were Jim Hightower (whom Rick Perry unseated as Agriculture Commissioner in 1990) and the late, great Ann Richards (undone by the simian George W Bush four years later). Since then, each quadrennial parade of successful candidates has been a clear explanation of why Texans rightly disbelieve in evolution. If these lower beasts copulated regularly with humans, it would prove that other virtuous Rick — Santorum — right: legalize homosexuality and next thing you know you have man on dog, man on box turtle, man on Rick Perry. Or worse, if possible.

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.

The leper principle: one touch makes you gay

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 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.

Perry: I remember I screwed a third guy, too, and his name was … uh … oops. The EPA?

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.