Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sexual Congress

The gayest town in America, according to Outrage, the new documentary by Kirby Dick, is not San Francisco, or New York, or even Fire Island. It’s Washington, D.C., the “most gay, most closeted place” in the U.S. Among the movie’s many revelations is that Capitol Hill is “packed with gay staffers.” Gay men, presumably because they have fewer family obligations, work around the clock to keep the nation’s capital running on time. (Dick previously directed This Film Is Not Yet Rated, an exploration of the movie ratings system.)

Outrage is about "outing" — the public exposure of the secret gay lives of public figures — and, and about rage, the deep well of anger among gay activists at the hypocrisy and betrayal of the closet. The film is a gutsy piece of advocacy, boldly detailing the private peccadilloes of closeted politicians, most of whom are prominent “family values” Republicans.

Most of the politicians are well practiced in deflecting and denying rumors about their sexuality, often waving them off by saying, "When you're in the public eye, people say things about you." (Yes, yes, people will talk and all that.) “I am not gay, I don’t do those kinds of things,” protests Larry Craig, the toe-tapping Idaho Republican senator after being arrested for soliciting an undercover officer in a Minneapolis airport restroom. For all we know he truly believes he isn't, despite the movie’s ample and rather tawdry evidence of Craig’s subterranean sex life. Outrage is unapologetically prurient. A leather-jacketed man recites the explicit details of his liaison with Craig, who picked him up at a gay club. After sex, Craig stuffed a $20 bill in the man’s pocket and growled, “Remember, you never saw me.” (Evidently, twenty bucks doesn’t buy everlasting silence.)

Among those interviewed are Michelangelo Signorile, the former OutWeek gossip columnist who launched the “outing” trend in the 1980s with exposés of closeted media and entertainment figures, including a famous postmortem outing of billionaire Malcolm Forbes; former New Jersey governor James McGreevey, who resigned after admitting an affair with an adviser, and who now lives happily with a male partner; McGreevey's wronged wife, who claims her husband ruined her life; openly gay Democratic members of Congress Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin; various bloggers and print journalists working to expose gay politicians like Florida Governor and future presidential hopeful Charlie Crist, who conveniently married a woman shortly before John McCain chose his vice presidential candidate; and ACT UP activist Larry Kramer, who calls living in the closet “collusion with genocide.”

The exposing of private sexual behavior is an uncomfortable and unsavory business, fraught with difficult ethical questions. Years ago, when I was editing news stories, I argued, mostly unsuccessfully, to prevent publication of a gossipy, and in my opinion irrelevant item about a local politician who was spotted at a gay club. But Outrage makes a strong case for transparency, arguing that when it comes to the law and human rights, the private is public, the personal political. The issue isn’t homosexuality, but hypocrisy; the closeted legislators under scrutiny are those with solid records of voting “No” on such issues AIDS funding, same-sex marriage, hate crime legislation and gays in the military. Barney Frank, who came out after 15 years in office, articulately explains why openness is essential to good policy: “People who make the laws should be subject to the laws.” Those who aren't, Frank says, tend to make harsh laws.

So why do these men, like the Roy Cohns before them, attack in public what they do in private? Denial, self-hatred, and an inclination, described in the film by a psychologist, to align oneself with aggressors. Signorile describes this well-known behavior as “bashing other gay people to prove they’re not gay.”

Outrage contains many sensational revelations, some of them completely gratuitous (was it really necessary to target Shep Smith, the one relatively moderate anchor on Fox News?). Sensationalism aside, the film is a well-argued, searing exploration of the pernicious effects, both personal and political, of the closet. It also raises the curtain on something we have long suspected: that politics and media are a façade, a pageant played out for public consumption. As one interviewee says, “Politics is like a Broadway show. Everything is scripted.”

Whatever you think about the practice of "outing," this is something you must remember, always.

Shorter version: Cleveland Scene.

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