Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Political "Outing"

While browsing gay blogland recently, I ran across of poll in which readers were asked to vote and comment on whether various hypothetical examples of closeted political figures should be “outed,” or have their homosexuality publicly exposed. The results of this poll, which was most likely inspired by the revelation that the avowedly homophobic Republican Party is riddled with powerful gays, were overwhelmingly in favor of “outing” gay political figures who support anti gay policies and legislation. I can’t go along with this. In fact, I find this attitude somewhat disturbing.

Make no mistake about it. My gut reaction would be to buy billboards, television time, and even a skywriting plane to expose their hypocrisy. But there are some important principles involved that we can’t allow ourselves to compromise, no matter how sweet the vengeance or great the immediate political gain.

“Outing” denies the individual’s right to a private life. Everyone, including political figures, has a right to a private life as long as that private life does not involve any illegal or seriously unethical behavior. Denying public figures a right to this privacy is a tactic that seems to have been invented by the radical right; of course, the most spectacular case was the Republicans’ exploitation of Clinton’s private life in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Aside from the ethical and philosophical issues involved, has America really benefited by bringing the details of people’s personal lives into politics?

Gay Republicans supporting anti gay measures are, of course, hypocrites. But regardless of any hypocrisies that may be involved, what should matter to the public is the person’s public record. Turning the political tables, we can ask ourselves what difference it makes if a congressman hasn’t any gay friends if he strongly supports gay rights legislation? Are we really going to try to destroy politically a tireless fighter for ecology if we find out that his windows aren’t double- glazed. If we want to protect the right to privacy for people whose positions we agree with, we have to do the same for those whose positions we abhor.

Equally important, any victory we would attain by “outing” would probably be short lived, since we would be attacking and destroying only the carrier, and not the disease. What is important is to convince the electorate of the wrongness of homophobia, not just of the hypocrisy of the homophobes. We may politically kill off a few homophobes, but the disease they carry will continue to plague us until we defeat the idea itself.

Moreover, trying to defeat an idea by attacking the personal qualities of its proponents is, of course, intellectually very dangerous. It sets precedents, or continues practices that we really would not want to live with. Ad hominem arguments are intellectually impossibly shabby. We have perfectly sound grounds with which to attack homophobia; we don’t need to debase ourselves with ad hominem arguments.

I can, of course, understand those who say that we have to fight fire with fire; the Republicans began the practice of dredging up aspects of political opponents’ sex lives. It might be emotionally gratifying to give them some of their own medicine. But do we really want to develop a political culture that operates on that level? It’s not just a question of rejecting the idea of the end’s justifying the means; it’s a question of debasing the whole level of political discourse. You can’t build a just society using such shoddy bricks.

In another post I said that we all, and every gay rights organization worth its salt, should apply as much pressure as possible to gay Republicans to get them to leave the party or at least publicly renounce the party’s homophobic stance. But legitimate pressure is one thing; blackmail is quite a different matter.


Blogger The Gay Species said...

"Outing" one's self I herald. "Outing" another, I disdain. EXCEPT: Exposing public hypocrisy.

You write, "everyone, including political figures, has a right to a private life," and I wholly agree. But political figures are also public figures by necessity. It's the "cost" of the job.

As long as public figures do not misrepresent themselves or defraud the public, their personal lives remain personal. BUT fraud, deliberate and willfull misrepresentation by a public figure, even about "non-public" features, exposes a major character flaw. And if we, the voter, cannot measure a person's character, but must abide by baldface fraulent rhetoric as our "guide," that dissonance I cannot accept.

If you bought a toaster that didn't toast, although it claimed to, caused bread to go up in fire, although it claimed safety, and nearly cost you your home, what about this toaster's falsity and danger should "not" be addressed in public? Hell, I'd let everyone know just how dangerous and misrepresented this defective "toaster" was, and might even sue the manufacturer. Call it product liability!

Politicians are "products" too. They're marketed in the very same way as toasters (and often act it, too). And some of us also want insight into politician's "character," just to give us a feel that the product being touted doesn't start on fire and immolate.

But even the "product" analogy falls short, because toasters are disposable inanimate objects without any sense. I'm not ready to concede that politicians are too.

In a democratic polis, where individuals elect "representatives" (a word bursting at the seams), the toaster analogy becomes acutely less applicable. Those we elect are not inanimate, amorphous objects, rather we hope they "represent" (stand in) for us. That's why "character" counts just as much, if not more, than product liability.

If the representation is fraudulent, more than product liability is involved. We are now in humanity and words like "betrayal" figure prominently. "Reliability" morphed into "Trust," and losing Trust is nothing like losing "reliability." But if we cannot Trust another to represent him or herself to us accurately, and then if s/he misrepresents "us" to others in the polis, the politician's betrayal is of enormous "personal" consequence. Products we may dispose if they fail to function. Humans who betray our confidence and trust "hurt" us. Our psyche, personal or social, is "wounded." We bleed (if only metaphorically). Indeed, we've been "wronged, violated, and trespassed," and "disposal" solves absolutely nothing.

The "political" is a different species from "product." S/he is just as human as we are "human." Therein, I suggest, lies an enormous difference. That a fraudulent human misrepresents us and him/herself is far beyond "product liability." The dissonance is "betrayal," and it mentally and physically "hurts." Disposal is an anodyne for "no one cares."

7:16 PM  
Blogger Daniel, the Guy in the Desert said...

I recall Gerry Studds dilemma in 1983. He was outed by the Republicans for having a consensual relationship with a 17 year old page. Inappropriate, yes, but not illegal, and perhaps not immoral. He survived it, and continued to serve as a Representative because his life matched up to his words,or his political agenda.
While I agree that a personal right to privacy is fundamental, I do not think it is absolute. I think that possibly the damage the foley did by his policies and agenda at least balanced his right to privacy.
The specific example I'm thinking of is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Pastor, Theologian and Ethicist, who was implicated in the failed assasination attempt on Hitler in 1943. He was asked why he did it, and responded to the effect that he couldn't stand by and allow Hitler to continue murdering people.
It is true that Foley did not order the killing of millions of people, but the policies Foley has espoused have brought ruin and despair in countless lives. 80% of all teen suicides, I have read, are attributable to sexual orientation issues. Foleys policy choices contibute to stuffing unhappy teenaged kids back into the closet where they suffocate and die. I think their rights outweigh Mr. Foleys right to private hypocrisy.
I'm not gleeful over Mr. Foleys unmasking, but I have no sympathy whatsoever for the man. Even as he was unmasked, he outed a priest to try to garner sympathy for himself.
And there had been no sex, just a massage, but Foley casually ruined another man's life to provide a little cover for himself.
Rights are balanced by appropriate responsibilities, and are forfeitd when responsibility s not maintained. That's not a law, but a general statement of cause and effect, or karma, or sowing and reaping, or "What goes around, comes around". Mr. Foley's hubris came around the mountain and smacked him in the face.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Bruce, I have to say I see all sides on this, but I have to agree most with the gay species and Daniel. Actually, Daniel, you do quite a good job of demonstrating the poignancy and horrible effects the repeated slavery to the closet has on those who--like we did in our teens--are engaged in their own young and tragic struggles with themselves, and are looking for role models and just a glimmer of visibility and hope.

Shame on those of us who can actually handle being out (without risking the possibility of suicide, for instance), such as Studds, McGreevey, Foley, but don't for selfish reasons. Politicians and public figures especially must in my mind demonstrate their good intentions when it comes to the interests of others... something alot of people here have pretty much given up on demanding, in our current political landscape. And they must be more open to scrutiny of their own lives because they are public figures.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

The whole gay and outing thing absolutely baffles me. If you took gay and made it black - no one would be questioning exposure. For example if you pulled off the hood of a Klansman and discovered that the ringleader were a black man - there would be no talk of 'outing' that black man for indoctrinating hate against his own people. Nor do I think there would be one African-American who would be against the 'outing' of this person. Why is it different with gays??????

9:28 PM  
Blogger RIC said...

After reading your post, I was trying to make use of my English to give you my opinion on this matter. But I think There's no need in doing so, because both GS and Daniel said what I consider to be right: sheer betrayal from a politician is simply not admissible at all, regardless of being gay or not. I agree with the privacy topic, but politically representation is the top question. And if a politician is fraudulent in any way, he ought to be unmasked. No more, no less. He is only defending the wrong ideas because that is convenient for himself alone. Not admissible at all! He should then be outed as a political fraud, not because in the privacy of his bedroom he sleeps with men.

6:35 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Stephen, Sam, Daniel, and Joshua, thank you all for your reasoned and intelligent comments.

I think, however, that we have to separate an expression of our justified feelings of rage against these hypocrites on one side, from what we consider to be ethically defensible on an other, and from what we consider an effective political strategy on a third.

That these men have caused immense dammage on both a public and private level is beyond question. That we feel both a desire for vengeance and the imperitive to stop them is without question justified.

What we have to weigh, however, is the difficulty of the ethical dimension of "outing"--- and I sense that we all have a certain amount of ethical discomfort with the issue--- against whether "outing" will actually do any good, whether it would be an effective political strategy.

I would be willing to put aside the argument of everyone's, even a polititian's right to privacy. I can see that the immensity of the evil that these homophobic public figures have prepetrated outweighs their right to privacy.

I think we would all agree, however, that the Republicans' development of a political culture in which a politicians personal and sexual behavior is held up to public scrutiny has done immense damage to our democracy. "Outing" feeds right into this ethos. We should not feel that "outing" comes with no price to ourselves. We are all suffering for that stain on a fat girl's blue dress.

"OK," you may say. "The price is high, but it's still worth it." Exposing these hypocrites will doubtlessly make us feel good. It may even stop the individual political homophobe. But has it really furthered the cause of tolerance and acceptance of gay people in America?

Foley was "outed." It doesn't seem that the gay community had much, if anything to do with his "outing," but who actually exposed his hypocracy is essentially irrelevant. Does Foley's "outing" give even the vaguest indication that it will increase understanding and tolerence for gays? Does it increase the possibility of stopping homophobic legislation and policies? On the contrary. There is talk of an anti gay witch hunt.

My problem with "outing" is that it is ethically questionable--- not wrong; questionable--- and practicly of very limited use. It may, as with the Foley case, even prove harmful to our cause.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

Did anyone see Barney Frank on Real Time with Bill Maher last night? He spoke a good bit about the whole outing issue, but more on the hypocrisy of gay Republicans supporting anti-gay policy. And he was good, boy was he good. Every time he speaks, I find myself cheering him (more since there is practically no one else to cheer). And he made Daniel's point eloquently and expertly. It is the kids and the young ones and the ones who can't stand up for themselves that we--and our gay elected representatives--have to stand up.

8:12 AM  
Blogger The Accidental Activist said...

"Everyone...has a right to a private life as long as that private life does not involve any illegal or seriously unethical behavior"

I think consistently voting against equal rights legislation, the constant vilification of homosexuality, using the gay issue as a political football and wedge issue and lengthening the miserable closeted existence of thousands of young and not-so-young gays falls neatly into the "seriously unethical" category.

As a comparison, outing of politicians started in the UK in the late 1980's. It was a tough call at the time as to whether it helped or hindered the cause. 15 years on, Peter Tatchell et al have helped create a parliament with many openly gay MP's from all parties, some increasingly progressive legislation and a more tolerant society. In the US, there is much navel-gazing about the rights and wrongs of it, and the consequence is a set of social policies straight from the 1950's.

I understand your point. It is a tough call, and there will be setbacks. But I feel that if there is a gay politican behaving and voting hypocritically on gay issues, then they are ripe for outing. End of story.

Why? We need honesty from our politicians, and the truth is that there are as mnay gays in politics as elsewhere in society. And the more out politicians (and other public figures) we have, the more the public realises that it's just normal, and nothing to get all heated up about. And that's a good thing. In this case, the means are not so important as the end...

10:27 AM  
Blogger The Gay Species said...

Also, let's remember it was Queer Theorists who made human sexuality a political act, and now protest that their politics is violated. When California's Briggs Initiative to fire gay teachers seemed inevitable to pass, Harvy Milk, certainly no closet case, decided it was critical to "depoliticize" love. Sexual relations are not a part of the public sphere, and therefore should not be considered in matters of employment (etc.). (This stance works in two ways: against discrimination, and against reactive legislation.) Harvey's approached worked! Former Gov. Reagan endorsed its soundness. Anita Byrant was trounced, and the initiative failed.

But circa 1985, under the spell of Foucault and postmodernism, the Queer Theorist took the opposite approach, insisting human sexuality is fundamentally a political act. In a narrow sense, there's a truth to this (such as criminalization of sodomy). But here's the bigger problem. If one politicizes sexual intimacy then it's fair game for the homophobe to follow suit. Once Queers started to make it political, Harvey's and others' claims that it wasn't, opens the door for the homophobe to politicize sexuality his way, which, if we aren't aware, has strength in numbers vis-a-vis the gay minority.

Well-intended, I'm sure, but utterly stupid strategically. Predictably, having opened it back into the political sphere, the Queer gets slaughtered. Then angry. Then hypocritical. Yes, we can politicize it, but you can't. Sorry, dudes, it does not work that way, and look at the can of worms you've opened.

11:09 AM  
Blogger txdave said...

I really admire the way you write and agree completely that hypocrisy, especially in politics, needs to be exposed.
We want honest, sincere public servants, insofar as that is possible.

Also, while I like your blog very much, don't you think some great photos of Venice, Italy, maybe Lake Como would add something.

I'm a believer in photos in blogs that have serious topics, please see:

thnks dave

b t w, got your link from "glittering muse"

5:44 PM  
Blogger The Gay Species said...

Bruce, you write, "That we feel both a desire for vengeance and the imperitive to stop them is without question justified." That does not characterize my perspective at all. I'm not out for blood, just truthfulness. I have no desire "to get back," just to get rid.

However "outing" fits into the larger objective of "exposing fraud," it's the latter, not the former, that's the objective. And I suggest that no circumstance or situtation is immune from the scrutiny of fraud, even if "outing" is a secondary consequence. But if fraud is being committed "in our Names," by our "representatives," it must not only be exposed but vilified.

Many of social relationships have variable degrees of "trust" attached to them, and certainly political representation requires a certain measure of trust. Fraud destroys trust. It does so in our interpersonal relationships, employment, friendships, and political choices. If being "outed" is secondary consequence, the fraudulent have to own that responsibility for their fraud and their "outing."

1:05 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...


I thank you all for the interesting, helpful, and to the point comments you have made on this very important issue. However, while I am willing to concede the point on the modification of an individual's right to privacy when his actions cause appreciable harm, I still remain unconvinced on two other important points:

1) "Outing" contributes to a further debasement of our political culture by dragging the ultimately extraneous elements of the person's sex life into political discourse; it continues the humiliating circus of which the Monica Lewinsky affair was a prime example. When concerning an elected official, it furthers the illusion that something more than the man's voting record and cortribution to political discourse matters. Are we really going to encourage a discourse in which ad hominum arguments prevail?

2) Is anything really accomplished by "outing?" If our goals and objectives are the elimination of homophobic legislation, regulation and policy and the fostering of an atmosphere of understanding, tolerance, and acceptance, the we will have to show how "outing" a homophobic gay politician or government worker will further the attainment of these goals.

Certainly, "outing" does nothing to diminish the power of the straight homophobes, who would probably be more than happy to do without their gay colleagues. They can all be replaced with more dependible straight homophobes. Luckily, in Foley's case, his seat will probably go to a Democrat, but in principle there is nothing to prevent the Republicans from presenting a straight homophobic candidate in the "outed" man's place.

Although it would make us feel good by getting rid of a gay homophobe politician here and there, as in the Foley affair, an "outing" can be easily instrumentalized into generating more anti gay propaganda. Moreover, there is nothing to assure that the "outed" person will be represented as a hypocritical Republican homophobe; he is just a likely, in fact, more likely, to be represented as a hypocritical gay.

Do we really want to encourage the Republican party to purge itself of gays? What possible benefit could that bring us?

All things considered, I don't see how "outing" will further our cause.

6:31 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Bruce, in essence the guy outed himself. He got caught in a scandal! How was it not going to come out that he was having homosexual proclivities with boys????

If he hadn't done these things he wouldn't have been outed! And he wasn't outed by society. His acts drew esposure to himself. His actions led to it.

If he was targeted for no reason than I could see us getting philosophical about the ethics of it all :)

8:53 PM  

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