As ‘Outrage’ documentary debuts, outing is deflating

A new documentary is reviving debate about outing closeted gay and lesbian politicians — a practice that has felled big names in the past and raised questions on where public officials’ rights to privacy end.

“Outrage,” a film premiering Friday at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival and coming to Washington on May 8, turns to already-out Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) for insight in its examination of the politicizing of someone’s sexual orientation.

But though the ethical concerns of outing haven’t changed much since the practice began, some members of the gay community and other experts wonder whether it is still the political bludgeon it once was.

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“It’s increasingly the case that being out doesn’t have the same weight that it used to,” said Larry Gross, a University of Southern California professor and author of Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing.

Gross, who makes an appearance in the movie, pointed to a 2005 outing-by-proxy, when an online gay publication exposed the sexual orientation of Robert Traynham, a spokesman for then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), because of his boss’s opposition to gay rights.

“When Rick Santorum’s African-American gay press spokesman was outed, the senator just shrugged,” Gross said in a phone interview.

Traynham noted that to his family and friends he was “already ‘out’ for many years prior to some website commenting on my personal life.”

He also told The Hill he didn’t want to discuss specifics of the documentary, but he did say “it’s sad for anyone to use hate and bullying tactics as a weapon to out anyone.”

But Gross and other experts said the Internet has changed how closely closeted politicians can keep their sexual orientation a secret, with anyone now able to spread personal information about someone else via the Web. And they note people today are also voluntarily living their lives more openly — thanks in part to social-networking websites — and are more comfortable with homosexuality — two factors that introduce both an inevitability and a “So what?” factor into the outing of gay politicians.

These days, outing is more about what its proponents say is hypocrisy.

“It’s not just a gay issue,” said Wayne Besen, a former Human Rights Campaign spokesman who published photographs of a self-proclaimed “ex-gay” employee of the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family exiting a Washington gay bar in 2000.

“If someone is on the Environmental Committee and is throwing Styrofoam at seagulls, they should be outed,” he said.

A recent example of “outing” in that vein, according to Besen and others, is that of former New York governor and organized-crime bulldog Eliot Spitzer (D) being driven out of office for soliciting prostitutes.

The outing of closeted politicians’ sexual orientations, they said, now fits into the larger trend toward more transparency in government.

Frank, who was elected to Congress in 1980 and came out of the closet seven years later, says in the movie that he too considers the outing of politicians more about accountability.

“There is a right to privacy, but not a right to hypocrisy,” he says.

Michael Rogers is the name behind many of the outings on Capitol Hill in the past several years. Rogers, a central figure in the documentary, is a former development director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. He started a blog in 2004 to out closeted politicians he considered to be thwarting the advancement of gay rights by day but benefiting from others’ activism by night.

In 2004 he blogged about former Rep. Ed Schrock (R-Va.) allegedly using a gay sex phone line. Schrock had co-sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and was also a vocal opponent of gays in the military. Shortly after the blog entry, Schrock dropped his reelection campaign.

Rogers also played a role in uncovering the 2007 accusations that former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) had sex with other men in the Union Station bathroom and in Idaho. Craig denied the allegations but did not run for reelection in 2008. Craig had supported a federal ban on same-sex marriage and opposed congressional efforts to outlaw anti-gay hate crimes and workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“No community should be expected to harbor its own enemies within,” Rogers said in an interview.

But even if the potency of outing closeted gay politicians has diminished, the ethical principles behind the practice still give rise to heated debate. Some proponents, like Besen, concede that a closeted public figure should not be outed if he or she has not taken public stances against gay rights. Others still think outings of any kind are wrong.

Former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), also in the movie, was outed in 1996 after voting against same-sex marriage.

“My position on [outing] has been consistent all along, which is that I think it’s a very bad thing to do,” he told The Hill. “I think people need to make those decisions themselves about when they come out.”

Kolbe said his outing turned out to be “a very positive thing for me,” and agreed that the practice is becoming less relevant.

“As time passes, I think it’s going to become less and less an issue,” he said. “People will be out; it’s not a matter of outing them.”

The documentary includes several clips of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who was recently married, denying he is gay, and a clip of his former girlfriend Kelly Heyniger saying, “I think I should just keep my mouth shut. Call me in 10 years, and I’ll tell you a story.”

Crist’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The documentary reveals little about the future of outing, and perhaps the best indication that it is no longer a gay activist’s most powerful tool is Rogers’s future plan. He has thrown himself into the larger blogging community, calling himself a Web organizer and saying he provides training to burgeoning Internet writers.

“I think that what I’d like to do is take what I’ve learned online and empower other people — empower younger people, empower underrepresented people,” he said. Rogers counts the fatal shooting of a California teen last year, considered an anti-gay hate crime, and the February suicide of an 11-year-old Massachusetts boy after anti-gay bullying at school among his new causes.

“Here are gay kids being shot in the back of the head, and no one cares,” he said. “So that has to change, and I’m working on that.”

Rogers says he has even stopped using the term “outing” and now merely refers to the practice as “reporting.”

“Citizen journalism is [now] what this is about, as opposed to outing,” he says.