The End of the Closet

In the wake of several high profile outings of prominent conservatives—including reports that that led Virginia Republican Rep. Ed Shrock to announce he would not seek re-election and that put California Rep. David Dreier on the defensive against his Democratic opponent, Cynthia Matthews, an out lesbian—the city’s queer Democratic clubs hosted a town hall meeting this week to explore how our community discusses the sexual lives of public figures.

The panel included three of the preeminent authorities on this discussion in the media—Michelangelo Signorile, the Sirius Radio host and New York Press columnist who as a fiery young Outweek writer nearly 15 years ago wrote about the sexual lives of people as diverse as the then recently deceased Malcolm Forbes and Pete Williams, who at the time was the closeted Pentagon spokesman during the first Gulf War; Ann Northrop, a longtime AIDS and lesbian activist who left a high profile career as a television news writer because of what she called the mainstream media’s “intellectually bankruptcy;” and Mike Rogers, a former New Yorker now in Washington running blogactive.com, one of the primary players in the recent spate of reports about closeted conservatives in power.

All three panelists reflected a common mixture of motivations, from doing their jobs to tell the whole truth as journalists to furthering a more open and honest discussion of homosexuality and gay men and lesbians, whether open or not, in American life.

Signorile, who probably more the other two panelists, bore the brunt of criticism—from the mainstream press, from liberal and progressive straight people and from powerful gay people, in New York, Washington and Hollywood—for his work at Outweek, reflected on the social changes that have reshaped public perceptions of outing. In the late 1980s and early 90s, he faced blistering attacks, including some from other gay journalists, but today, he said, people are outed everyday on “The View,” Barbara Walters’ daytime talk show. Signorile said he always felt that what he was doing was simply reporting honestly. In fact, he explained, the term “outing” was coined, as a pejorative, by the late William Henry III, a closeted man whose widow has since acknowledged his homosexuality.

Signorile noted that many of the targets of outing efforts by journalists and activists of that era—Hollywood power brokers such as David Geffen and Barry Diller as well as Williams, who went on to a successful broadcast news career—are now out and proud.

According to the panel, the proof of outing’s efficacy is in that pudding, and the dramatically more normalized public discourse about homosexuality in American society.

For Rogers, his efforts to expose closeted gay people who have actively oppose gay rights—largely the case with Dreier and Strock—is motivated by what he sees as an uncompromising assault on the lives of gay men and lesbians by the Bush administration and the Christian right. Strock folded quickly when news about his sexuality first surfaced on Rogers’ website—as his support in the Christian right was evaporating. Dreier, a frequent right-wing talking head on cable television, is trying to hang tough and is abetted, in Rogers’ view, by a local conservative newspaper chain determined not to air the issue. Rogers promised that by election day, every voter in Dreier’s conservative southern California district would know that he is gay.

But perhaps the more typical model for the closet in today’s public life is best exemplified by two local examples—New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey and Brooklyn City Councilman Vincent Gentile. Rumors about McGreevey’s sexuality swirled among journalists and Trenton insiders since at least his first, unsuccessful run for governor in 1997. McGreevey does not fit the Strock mold. Though an opponent of same-sex marriage, the New Jersey governor is generally a strong supporter of gay rights. When the inevitable moment came when he came clean with the public about his sexuality, his disclosure’s potential nobility was denied because he simultaneously owned up to a sexual relationship with an employee that he had appointed to an important state post for which many people believed the man was poorly qualified.

Like McGreevey, rumors about Gentile’s sexuality have also been in the air throughout his public life. After voting against the state gay rights law in 2002 as a state senator—despite a promise that he would support the measure—Gentile told Gay City News that he was not gay, an assertion he repeated several weeks ago when a top male aide in his office filed charges with the City Council’s Ethics Committee, alleging a pattern of harassment. Just one day later, a former campaign manager for Gentile, now a prominent gay civil rights attorney, Thomas Shanahan, told Gay City News, and confirmed later for other media, that he and the councilman had an affair when they worked together.

Whether the Ethics investigation sheds any more light on Gentile’s life, as a gay man or not, remains to be seen.

But, in an age when Will Truman is as recognizable a TV character as Archie Bunker was a generation ago, the lives of gay and lesbian people who choose to remain in the closet or who struggle with an inability to come out, will draw the attention of those who are around them, in their families, at their jobs and, if they are public figures, among the population at large.

With the right wing waging a no holds barred assault on the dignity of gay and lesbian people, our community is going to take things personally. Signorile was right. Done with proper journalistic integrity and standards, outing is simply reporting.

Let the chips fall where they may.

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