Thursday, May 28, 2009

Outrage - A Review

"The only reason people hate gay people is because their leaders tell them to."
Rep. Barney Frank, (D-MA)

To “come out,” meaning to come out of the closet as a gay person” is an intransitive verb. The transitive verb (the one with an object) is to “out (someone).”

While this pair of verbs works like lie-lay, sit-seat, rise-raise in terms of syntax, semantically there is a world of difference between come out and out. You can come out (i.e., out yourself) anytime you wish, and the decision is entirely up to you. But out somebody else, and you risk being one lousy son of a bitch.

Why? Because we still buy into the belief that being gay is shameful. If I ‘out’ you as a Presbyterian, it will not make your face red. (OK, so maybe it will, but ride this out with me.)

There are some gay people so angry about this that they want to out anybody and everybody all the time, to drive home the point that being ashamed of being gay is stupid and wrong. I believe those people are angels. But angels are hard to live with.

Most gay people (and most straight people as well) don’t believe outing just anybody is good politics and it certainly can be very unkind. If you out a 16-year old to hostile peers while he is struggling with sexual identity, and force him to carry the label gay before he’s ready, you are adding a lot to his burden of growing up. Good people don’t do those things.

But what about somebody fighting his homosexuality so hard that he has to lash out and hurt other gays to make the world believe he’s not one of them. Should this guy not be made to see his struggle doesn’t entitle him to hurt others? What about the gay man or woman who chooses to make laws that he himself doesn’t intend to live by, and knows he has the power to escape? Should he get carte blanche to build his career on the backs of other gay men and women?

Documentarian Kirby Dick (Derrida, 2002; Twist of Faith, 2004; This Film is Not Yet Rated, 2006) has come out with a film on outing such politicians, and a few others who live in the limelight. It’s called Outrage. That’s out as in outing, and rage as in I’m tired of taking this crap from you traitors to the tribe and I’m going to fight back. It’s the best documentary I’ve seen in years. Many are comparing Dick with Michael Moore and at least one reviewer has compared him with Erroll Morris and Alex Gibney. I’ll leave the ranking to others and limit my comments to the quality of the content and the value of the film’s goals.

If you live in the D.C. area and happened to tune into a TV program called Let’s Talk Live the other day, you saw host Doug McKelway get up on a high horse and ride. He lambasted his guest, Michael Rogers, the chief “outer” in the film, called him a bully and threatened to punch him in the face for his efforts. Now if Doug McKelway had done his homework and seen the movie before interviewing Michael Rogers, he might possibly have picked up on this important distinction between bad outing (the nervous kid) and good outing (the hypocrite on the taxpayer’s dime). Possibly not. It’s a distinction the political right is not interested in making. They’d rather live by a don’t-ask-don’t-tell rule and make sure being gay (or homosexual – to them there’s no difference) remains something which we should all work to keep in the shadows. Condemning outing tout court accomplishes this aim.

Outing A and Outing B are a good illustration of how much grief we cause ourselves as a society when we stretch words so thin that they actually come to cover a multitude of phenomena, including contradictory meanings.

Something similar has happened with the blurring of homosexual and gay. It wasn’t long ago that gay was a word only politically active gays chose to use. Much of the rest of the world went on with homosexual, or worse. “Why did they go and take a perfectly good word like gay and ruin it!?”

Now it’s pretty much universal. And that’s a problem. If it were up to me, we’d all use gay to identify happy out people with a political consciousness and homosexual for those people who lurk in the shadows drawing energy and thrills out of things illicit. By using gay for anybody with a same-sex attraction, we have no way of distinguishing between happy gays and people like Larry Craig, who get their jollies in airport men’s rooms.

Larry Craig swears to heaven he’s not gay. Fine by me. I don’t want him. Who wants to share an identity with this sad screwed up man who has built a life on “family values” which he himself can’t live up to.

But there are two different issues here – Larry Craig’s self-loathing, and Larry Craig’s role as a stone in the road to gay equality. We can leave Larry Craig to figure out for himself how to leech the self-loathing out of his nervous system. In the meantime, though, I feel the urge to get up out of my chair and cheer as Michael Rogers and Michelangelo Signorile, Larry Kramer and other professional outers turn the lights on the hypocrisy of Larry Craig and his ilk – particularly in power positions in Washington.

There’s a line in a Christopher Isherwood story I remember vividly (Berlin Stories, maybe) where he tells of entering Britain with his lover and reads what’s coming next in the eyes of a homosexual customs agent. Sure enough, they’re pulled out of line and refused entry for being social deviates, and the agent deflects the suspicion of homosexuality from himself a while longer with his colleagues. Many people hid their African heritage that way in the days when “passing” was a serious temptation for light-skinned blacks.

Unfortunately, these sickos still abound. Some are aware of their homosexuality and loathe themselves for it; others are living in denial and functioning at a subconscious level. I suspect Larry Craig is one of the latter type, but unless he tells us, we can’t be sure. Others - Charlie Crist of Florida and David Dreier of California, for example, would appear to be so overcome with ambition they don’t give a hot damn whether they’re gay or not – politics to them, I suspect, is all about playing the game and getting ahead, being honest only when it gets me where I'm going – and don’t bother me with things I choose not to think about. Ed Shrock, too, who represents Pat Robertson’s little corner of Virginia, with a 92% approval rating with the Christian Coalition for his anti-gay voting record, was caught leaving messages on a gay phone-sex line – and still maintains he’s not gay.

But you are, Blanche. You are.

There are things to find fault with in Outrage. It bothers me a bit to find Jim McGreevey presented as the gay politician who saw the light and came out and is now a model for others. What’s missing in that story is that he was outed for being unethical – for giving his lover a job in his administration he didn’t merit. Some role model.

There are good role models. Barney Frank is one. He too had a scandal in his past, when a lover ran a brothel out of his (Frank’s) apartment. But Frank came clean. Working 100 hours a week meant he had some excuse for not knowing what was going on, but even if you don’t want to give him that, he wasn’t involved himself. In any case, it was a long time ago, the voters of his district in Massachusetts have reelected him repeatedly since then, and he’s just about everybody’s notion of how a gay man or woman in politics should wear his homosexuality. Proudly, and incidentally.

Another charge of weakness in the film is made by reviewer Edward Havens. “How do you objectively cover this topic,” he asks, “when the only evidence you have about the sexuality of the individuals in question are unproven allegations, or people who say they know people who have had same-sex relationships with those in question, or witnesses who will only talk about their relationships with their faces hidden and their voices altered?” Michael Rogers addresses that issue. The film uses extreme caution and soft-pedals its accusations. Rogers himself, on the other hand, whose research comprises the bulk of the film’s content, insists he has documentation available to anybody who asks for it. And he has never been sued.

Sometimes, it’s true, the evidence is not ironclad and would not stand up in a court of law. Florida Governor Charlie Crist, for example, who repeatedly voted against gay marriage, denies being gay. On the other hand, there are several men who claim to have had sex with him. Men who don’t know each other. And when asked point blank about his homosexuality, his former girlfriend, Kelly Heyniger, replied, “I think I should just keep my mouth shut. Call me in 10 years and I’ll tell you a story.” OK, it’s innuendo. But, as another reviewer asks, “Isn’t that enough to run the story with? I don’t know.

One last criticism I have of Dick’s approach is the use of the word “conspiracy” to describe the way the media in Washington and elsewhere work to protect self-hating closeted gays and help them continue their anti-gay projects. To be in a conspiracy, people have to work together. I think there is a conspiracy, but it’s at the cultural level where it’s called a “value.” People do it unconsciously, not because they want to actively further homophobic interests, but because “nice people don’t out other people.” It’s less a conspiracy than, as A. O. Scott of The New York Times put it, an “unspoken pact of secrecy.”

Scott makes another interesting observation. This film would have been far more shocking a few years ago. Now, it’s part of a wave of acceptance. Despite setbacks, like the decision of the California Supreme Court to uphold Prop. 8, the direction of the movement toward full equality for gay people is clear. Outing (now defined strictly in the sense of outing hypocrites, not innocents) is part of that movement, another contribution to the growing sense of inevitability of gay liberation.

And Scott caught what I think is the secret to the film’s success. Instead of moralizing or lecturing, the film simply sets side by side the lives of the closeted with the lives of those like Barney Frank, congressman from Massachusetts, Jim McCreevy, former governor of New Jersey, Jim Kolbe, former Arizona congressman, Jim Hormel, former U.S. Ambassador to Luxemburg, and Tammy Baldwin, the first ever openly gay non-incumbent to be elected to the House of Representatives (from Wisconsin), who have found how much easier it is to breathe, once they came out of the closet. It’s a juxtaposition of night and day.

Other good guys featured in the film (it is not focused exclusively on politicians, remember) are David Catania (at large member of the DC city council), Elizabeth Birch (former head of the Human Rights Campaign, advisor to the Howard Dean campaign, and first LGBT speaker at a Democratic National Convention), and Hilary Rosen, her former partner and co-parent of her children. Rosen also directed the Human Rights Campaign for a time, and contributes to the Huffington Post in addition to working in the media and entertainment industry.

Unless I missed him, Jarid Polis, Mark Udall’s successor in Colorado's 2nd Congressional District is not featured in the film for some reason. And if he wasn’t, what a statement that makes – that we should now have a sufficient number of gay people in congress to be able to leave one out when telling the story.

The sheer number of out politicians suggests it can be done. You can be both gay and elected to office. When you get there, you represent not just your gay constituents but all your constituents. The point of the film, though, is that you don’t vote for anti-gay legislation. The film brings home how hard it is to be gay and act anti-gay. Something’s got to give. Fair enough. If you want your congressman to be a white supremacist, you don’t elect an African-American.

What the film does not take up adequately is how you do this if your politics are genuinely Republican. “How come you pick on Republicans?” critics ask. The charge is the film isn’t fair because if it were it would also call out closeted democrats. But the question is disingenuous. It assumes the Republican platform serves gay interests as well as the Democratic platform does, and that simply isn’t true. Most democrats do not systematically vote for anti-gay legislation. It’s like asking why, when complaining about Prop. 8 supporters, you name so many Catholics, Mormons and Fundamentalists. That’s where they live! If you’re gay, and you’re Republican, there simply isn’t room for you in the party, unless you are willing to subordinate all gay interests to so-called “larger issues.” Log Cabin Republicans may want to deny that, but the fact remains there are not a lot of black Republicans voting to withhold rights from blacks in Congress, either.

The one gay democrat who gets attention is Ed Koch, former mayor of New York. Larry Kramer lets him have it for doing such a piss-poor job of taking care of gay men with AIDS in the early days. Koch continues to insist his sexuality is a private issue. Besides, he says, he marched in the Gay Pride Parade, (he also worked with Bella Abzug on gay rights legislation – a fact left out in the film) so what do you want from me?

Along the same line, why did Dick go for FOX News Channel Shepard Smith and not Anderson Cooper, some have asked, missing the distinction between outing A and outing B. But, to be fair, just how damaging is Smith to the gay community? There’s lots to chew on here and the question brings into focus the line between good outing and inappropriate outing and how hard it is not to cross it.

Another closet case, says Outrage, is Ken Mehlman, W’s campaign manager. A Wikipedia entry on Mehlmen states that as head of the RNC, he played a key role, along with Karl Rove, in executing the Republican Party's long-term plan for electoral dominance, a story outlined in Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger's book, One Party Country.

Mary Cheney is perhaps the clearest example of what we’re talking about here. She is not demonized in the film to the degree some of the closet case Republicans are, possibly because, hard to swallow as her argument might be, it would at least be an non-hypocritical argument. Mary Cheney would no doubt take the line that sacrificing gay interests to keeping the world safe is a small price to pay.

In any case, she would seem to make the case that the closet is not the only place for gays to be. That remains debatable, but it’s a separate question from outing, and outside the purview of the film, except to bring home the notion that we’d much rather be able to talk to a Mary Cheney, support her personally and argue with her intellectual positions, than pretend we are getting anywhere with a hypocrite who lacks convictions and shifts with the wind.

I wouldn’t have minded if more time had been spent trying to explain closetedness, but too much seriousness might have killed the movie’s chances for popular success. At least Kirk gave it a whirl by bringing in Andrew Sullivan and Tony Kushner. Sullivan maintains it’s generational. There is a segment showing the Boise, Idaho where Larry Craig grew up. So vicious was the attack on gays who came out in his teenage years that it is not hard to imagine him scarred for life. Or at least brainwashed through fear in the way Exodus Christian folks try to convince you it's rewire your brain or roast in hell. Tony Kushner brought home another view through the character of Roy Cohn in Angels in America. I’m not homosexual, Cohn says. Homosexuals are losers. I’m not a loser. Therefore I’m not a homosexual.

When the AIDS crisis hit, health care workers around the world started education campaigns aimed at gay men. They soon discovered they were not getting through, because many men who had sex with men didn’t define themselves as gay because gay to them meant “insertee.” Since they were “inserters” who would kill anybody who tried to make them an “insertee,” they could not be gay. This line of thinking prevails in much of Latin America, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, where being macho is a near life-and-death issue. Machismo and the Roy Cohn syndrome may not cover all the reasons for the closet, but they go a long way.

In the end, Kirby Dick and his colleagues chose to ride the tide of newfound energy from the backlash over Prop. 8. They keep their focus on the point that being in the closet is not only wrong. Times have changed, and as many before Outrage, such as GLAAD president and former out mayor of Tempe, Arizona Neil Giuliano have pointed out, it’s no longer even justifiable.

Written and directed by Kirby Dick
Director of photography, Thaddeus Wadleigh
Edited by Doug Blush and Matt Clarke
Music by Peter Golub
Produced by Amy Ziering
Released by Magnolia Pictures.


In evaluating a work of social criticism, I feel strongly that one should judge it on its own merits, and not for what it fails to do. Everybody works with time limits. So I don’t want what follows to constitute criticism of the film. On the contrary, I want to credit the film with being the catalyst for raising yet more questions on the topic that should be discussed. Here are a few of the questions I have encountered in debating the outing issue in the film and my response to those questions:

Q1: What about the point that it is possible to consider “getting things done” the highest value, and that in some cases one simply has to go into the closet to be effective?

R1: This is like the question of what ethical breaches it is necessary to make in order to gain political office. Does one lie about one’s opponent? Stuff the ballot box? This approach didn’t work for Nixon; it should not work for gay crusaders, either.

Q2: Is outing, no matter how you slice it, not a form of McCarthyism?

R2: No. McCarthy was interested in discrediting anybody with a social consciousness who might have been persuaded at some time in their lives that communism might lead to greater social equity. He went after people not because they were genuinely interested in overthrowing the government, but because they could be got at by innuendo and by false representation of their growth as moral beings. Outing is used only to expose hypocrites, not to further an ideology.

Q3: When Bill Maher outed Ken Mehlman on CNN’s Larry King Live, that part of the interview got censored. Is this not a good rule to follow, to protect the innocent? [original version; censored version:]

R3: No. It was a censorship move that serves no purpose. CNN didn’t need to make Maher the bad guy by taping his mouth shut for him. If Ken Mehlman wanted to he could sue Bill Maher. He’d have to prove the statement isn’t true, of course. This incident raises the question of who is aided when gays get to stay in the closet. Only if there is something wrong with being gay is there something wrong with identifying people as gay. Mehlman is no teenager struggling with his sexuality. If Mehlman helped Bush formulate anti-gay policy and he is a gay man himself, then why is Larry King helping him work his hypocrisy? Dick’s point is well made here, that there is all aroung media effort, at least, if not conspiracy, to protect those who would harm gay people. Shame on Larry King and CNN. Oh, and by the way, what's with this word innocent? If you want to see a nice example of the extent of institutionalized homophobia, consider what innocent contrasts with.

Q4: Why don’t you give Larry Craig the benefit of the doubt? He says he’s not gay. Why don’t you just accept that? If after all that has happened to him he is still closeted, isn’t it possible he is telling the truth?

R4: Craig was arrested in an airport bathroom for soliciting sex. They caught him in the act. Nobody has criticized the way the sting went down. You may hate the entrapment, but in this case, once done, there is no way for Larry Craig to deny he was seeking sex. And the guy has a vicious record of homophobic legislation. Why would you let him off the hook?

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