The ethics and etiquette of outing
This commentary is the opinion of the author and may not reflect that of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin
June 1st, 2010
I have not been a fan of outing.
Most of us have, at some point, lived in the closet. And we know the trauma and upheaval that can come from a public acknowledgment (or disclosure) of one’s sexual orientation in a world that does not treat gay people equally. Choosing to publicly identify as gay is to choose to be subjected to disapproval and animus by some and to be treated as an oddity or eccentric by others.
And because every person’s circumstance, family dynamic, social network, and financial situation are different, I generally favor allowing each person to decide on their own when is best for them to take the step towards honesty and disclosure.
On the other hand, the closet is debilitating and oppressive. Virtually everyone who has left the closet, whether voluntarily or though embarrassing scandal, agrees that life is much better in the light. The constant worry about who knows and what might happen should you be discovered is a heavy burden, and when it is lifted you feel free.
Take, for example, CA Sen. Roy Ashburn who sort of outed himself by means of a DUI on the way home from a gay bar (with the help of others who blogged about the event). Held hostage to fear, Ashburn’s closet life was limiting and his new found freedom was exhilarating.
“I would not have been speaking on a measure dealing with sexual orientation ever prior to the events that have transpired in my life over the last three months,” Ashburn told his colleagues. “However, I am no longer willing or able to remain silent on issues that affect sexual orientation and the rights of individuals. And so I am doing something that is quite different and foreign to me, and it’s highly emotional.”
And things have improved over the years. Support is available, and with each passing year the cost of being honest is lower.
There is no question that leaving the closet is the right decision, almost without exception. But less certain is who is entitled to pick the timing and the circumstances under which the closet door comes down.
One argument for outing is that it is appropriate when a politician or person in a position of power is using their authority in ways that actively harm the community. And there is a certain amount of logic to that criterion; the purpose is not to punish, but rather to stop the harm.
But the problem is in how we define “harm”.
For some, being registered as a Republican would be adequate cause for outing in as humiliating a way as possible. But this is based more in a desire to punish them for the “sin of being Republican” than it is in any real effort to protect the community.
For others, a voting pattern that is not 100% in alignment with the stated position of our various organizations deems one to be an enemy. But I find this to be a bit too much like extortion for my taste. And, frankly, I find many of the bills that our community organizations support to be ridiculous partisan posturing which has little actual value or meaning. Is someone “anti-gay” or doing harm to our community if they think that a Harvey Milk Day is a pointless waste of scarce resources?
And beyond questions about the definition of harm is the inherent assumption within the concept of outing that being gay is something that is shameful or shock-worthy. Outings that are designed so as to deliver maximum damage to the party being outed rely on the ill will of the public and not only validate homophobia but encourage it.
Which is why I am troubled by Mike Rogers’ outing of Illinois Republican congressman Mark Kirk.
Many Washington insiders, including Rogers, have known for years about Kirk’s same-sex attraction. Republican party insiders in Illinois have no illusions about Kirk, either.
In fact, in a blatant appeal to homophobia, a primary opponent tried to out Mark Kirk just this past December. This effort that resulted in the obligatory (and vague) denial by the candidate and condemnation of the bigot by the party structure.
And like a number of politicians across the nation, both Democratic and Republican, Kirk has kept his closet intact by having a relatively supportive record on gay issues. Rogers notes this as his reason for not outing Kirk earlier.
Until now, Mark Kirk elected not to play the typical Washington game. Instead of supporting his party’s dismal record on gay rights, Kirk received Human Rights Campaign ratings of 67% in 2002, 88% in 2004, 76% in 2006 and 85% in 2008. That’s more impressive than a lot of Democrats.
Rogers knows that in the long run a usually-supportive Republican can be even more effective than a reliable Democrat because he can provide the oh-so-necessary bipartisan vote. And Kirk, a military reservist who recently served in Afghanistan and is on the record as supporting DADT, has not changed his position.
But Mike Rogers has decided that today is the right time to reveal Kirk’s same-sex attraction. Here is the reason he gives:
Now, for the first time in his congressional career, Mark Kirk really had the chance to stand up and do what is right with the power of a vote. When I heard that five GOPers voted to lift the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ban I instinctively though Kirk would be one of them. What a disappointment when he wasn’t.
Rogers would have us believe that this vote was the impetus, the motivation, the single action that compelled Mike to act. And I might find that vote to be an adequate reason, if I believed him.
But I don’t.
You see, the timing is just a bit too convenient. Although he has been running slightly ahead of his Democratic opponent for US Senate, Alexi Giannoulias and Kirk now appear to be very close in the polls. This may have been just too opportune of a moment for Rogers to pass.
Had Mike Rogers made an appointment with Kirk, expressed his intention in reporting the claims of his witnesses, allowed Kirk to respond or plan his own revelation, I might doubt my instinct. Had Rogers waited until after November, had the vote gone the other way, had it not been bipartisan, any of these might lend him credibility.
But the gotcha nature of the report negates any possibility that Rogers was simply seeking to reduce harm to our community. No, his primary goal was to embarrass, humiliate, and damage Mark Kirk.
And if my suspicions needed confirmation, Rogers adds another element. He references another potential scandal/criticism of Kirk, one that has nothing to do with his sexual orientation. This piling on makes it apparent to me that Rogers’ outing of Kirk is based less on his disappointment with Kirk’s vote and more on his desire to influence the outcome of the election.
No doubt many readers will find the advancement of a Democratic candidate to be an absolutely acceptable reason to out Mark Kirk. They may believe that we are in battle and that anything that lowers the chances of a Republican majority in the Senate is fair game. Some may argue that anything which hurts any Republican candidate at any time is a tool to be employed without question.
I do not.
Because while it is possible that Rogers has hurt Mark Kirk, it is absolutely certain that he has also hurt the gay community.
Because by introducing Kirk’s sexual orientation into the senate race, Rogers is reinforcing homophobia. By giving anti-gay voters a “reason” to vote against Kirk, he is validating bigotry.
And Rogers has now justified the actions of Kirk’s bigoted primary opponent. He’s confirmed that appealing to homophobia is a valid tactic to be used in politics and sexual orientation is a weapon to be wielded against those who are gay.
Mark Kirk was not one of the five Republicans who voted to include the compromise amendment in the Defense Authorization Bill. Those were Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL), Charles Djou (HI), Judy Biggert (IL), Joseph Cao (LA), and Ron Paul (TX).
But he was among the five Republicans who joined them to vote for the Defense Authorization Bill which included the repeal. Those were Charlie Dent (PA), Mike Castle (DE), Mark Kirk (IL), Mary Bono Mack (CA), and Dave Reichert (WA).
Ron Paul voted for the amendment but not for the bill.