21 August 2002

Outing By Any Other Name

Équipe -Pose ta question!-

The gay press was pilloried a decade ago for outing. But the practice we were accused of inventing is now used by the likes of Barbara Walters and The New York Times In 1990 the word outing suddenly took on a new, fearful connotation. In the mainstream media's definition—the only definition to which most people were exposed—outing meant revealing that a public figure was gay or lesbian against his or her will, something that many a columnist described as akin to McCarthyism.

At the time I was among the people being tarred as a proponent of outing because I advocated that the media honestly report on gay public figures' lives in the same way they report on straight public figures' lives. As far as I was concerned, this was “reporting”—or, as some of my colleagues described it, “equalizing.” But the word outing and its negative connotation couldn't be shaken off.

Today, not much has changed in that regard: Outing is still thought by many in the media to be something aggressive and wrong, and many reputable media organizations claim to have a policy against it. The one unmistakable difference now, however, is that those same media organizations actually regularly engage in one form of outing or another, although they're loath to admit it. In fact, in the year 2000, apart from the supermarket tabloids the leading practitioners of what was dubbed outing in 1990 are not activists and gay-media journalists but those same mainstream media powers that once lined up to condemn the practice. And that, paradoxically, is both a measure of the power of words and of the enormous progress that American culture and journalism have made on the issue of disclosing one's homosexuality.

It was Time magazine that coined the term outing back in 1990, creating an active, even somewhat violent, verb to describe my commentary. In my Gossip Watch column at the now defunct OutWeek—a weekly gay and lesbian magazine with an activist bent—I was pointing out how much of the media glamorized heterosexuality and hid homosexuality: They made sure to accurately report every intimate detail about heterosexual celebrities' and politicians' lives—whether the subjects wanted such facts reported or not—but they willingly lied about public figures who were gay, printing stories about alleged dalliances with members of the opposite sex when they often knew such tales were figments of publicists' imaginations. I often corrected the mainstream media's inaccuracies in my column, of course printing the names of the people to whom I was referring.

The AIDS epidemic was mushrooming in those years, and the urgency of gay visibility was being underscored by activists while the silence around AIDS in the media and among politicians was deafening. The closeted gay Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson had died of AIDS-related causes a few years earlier, and his life and death exposed how the media bought into the Hollywood machine that heterosexualized actors—and how that machine reflected an entrenched media hypocrisy that went well beyond Hollywood.

What was the rationale among mainstream journalists to promote such inaccuracies? I asked. They were protecting people's right to privacy, they claimed, noting that it was up to the individual to decide whether or not to be out or to put forth a heterosexual facade and that no one else could make that decision. And at that time, make no mistake, suggesting or even hinting that someone was gay was considered as horrific as outright reporting it. (One particular list of well-known names printed in an early edition of OutWeek was quickly mythologized into a scandalous catalog of the celebrity closet even though the names were published without any accompanying comment about the celebrities' sexuality.) Indeed, simply asking an individual point-blank about his or her sexual orientation was considered a cruel and terroristic form of interviewing. It was all outing, pure and simple.

I smelled homophobia. After all, there the mainstream media were, reporting all the intimate details of multimillionaire developer Donald Trump's divorce and extramarital affairs and throwing questions at him left and right while simultaneously lecturing us piously about “privacy.” I charged that the real reason they were attacking me and others who supported similar reporting on gay public figures was because they thought even being a homosexual, and revealing that fact, was the most horrible thing in the world.

Rather than engaging in healthy debate and presenting my opinions in a responsible manner, however, most of the mainstream media elected to demonize me and others as neofascists hell-bent on destruction.

In fact, when I wrote a lengthy article about New York's other multimillionaire of the day—publishing tycoon Malcolm Forbes—shortly after he died in February 1990, all hell broke loose. At first the media tried to suppress the story, but their own desire to sell papers got the best of them. So they reported on it—sometimes using Forbes's name, sometimes still closeting him as an unnamed, recently deceased publishing tycoon, as if people couldn't guess who that was—while simultaneously attacking me for writing the story, often charging that I was the gay community's new worst enemy. The media's sudden concern for the welfare of homosexuals—at a time when the media rarely focused on gay and lesbian issues and often only did so with a homophobic spin—was as equally suspect as their concerns about privacy.

In truth, mainstream journalists hated outing because it was a critique of them: It was telling them that they were doing their jobs wrong, treating gay public figures and straight public figures unequally. And it was calling them on their homophobia. For me, it was a painful time, but it was also exhilarating because I knew we were kicking off a debate that would go on for years, finally letting a genie out of the bottle.

Ten years later that genie is hard at work—and now in the mainstream media. In recent years The Wall Street Journal broke news of Jann Wenner's same-sex love affair and Esquire magazine plopped Kevin Spacey on its cover with the tag line KEVIN SPACEY HAS A SECRET and a story that begins, “ ‘Kevin Spacey?' my mom said.… ‘Well, I hear he's gay.'” And just in December, Andrew Sullivan, often described in the early '90s as a gay conservative, named names in his New York Times Magazine column.

This was the same Sullivan who, in a 1990 article titled “Sleeping With the Enemy” in The New Republic, wrote that outers “have attacked the central protection of gay people themselves,” observing that the “gleam in the eye of the outers” is “the gleam of the authoritarian.”

By the time of his New York Times Magazine column in 1999 Sullivan had done a 180-degree turn. In chastising such individuals as Rosie O'Donnell, Ricky Martin, Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala, Attorney General Janet Reno, Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, former New York City mayor Ed Koch, and fitness guru Richard Simmons because they refuse to declare their sexual orientation, Sullivan opined, “There comes a point, surely, at which the diminishing public stigmatization of homosexuality makes this kind of coyness not so much understandably defensive as simply feeble: insulting to homosexuals, who know better, and condescending to heterosexuals, who deserve better. It's as if the closet has had every foundation and bearing wall removed but still stands, supported by mere expediency, etiquette and the lingering shards of shame. Does no one have the gumption just to blow it down?” And when Koch fumed to the New York Post the following week that Sullivan is like “the Jew-catcher of Nazi Germany,” it certainly brought back memories for me; the difference this time around, however, was that few other promine
nt voices came to Koch's defense.

The liberal friend of gays Barbara Walters, meanwhile, wouldn't relent when interviewing Ricky Martin on her ABC-TV
Oscar night special in March. After Martin evaded her first inquiry about “rumors that question and talk about [his] sexual orientation,” Walters pushed on: “You could say, as many artists have, ‘Yes, I am gay,' or you could say, ‘No, I'm not.' ” And when Martin continued to dodge the question, Walters—sounding every bit like an activist—said, “It's in your power to do it.” Martin was forced to feebly utter, “I understand…[but] I just don't feel like it.”

There's more. In her March 2000 book, Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip, MSNBC.com columnist Jeannette Walls discusses the sexual orientation of the cybergossip Matt Drudge. Seeing it as relevant to the story of Drudge's own reporting on private lives, Walls interviewed several men who say they dated him, and spoke to former friends who knew him as gay, such as Dan Mathews, campaign director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Each of the above instances—speculating, asking, and outright reporting—would have been dubbed “outing” ten years ago, attacked by pundits of media outlets such as The New York Times and ABC-TV as the worst breach of privacy. Today, however, these practices have simply been folded into journalism. What we did in the gay press has clearly pointed the way for many at today's mainstream outlets. “Equalizing” has, in many cases, become reality. Yet the word outing itself continues to be demonized, with only the supermarket tabloids now proudly acknowledging that they out people (something even they didn't trumpet prior to 1990). Fearful of being tarred, the mainstream journalists I've mentioned would no doubt insist—as Andrew Sullivan defensively, and somewhat laughably, even stated in his aforementioned New York Times Magazine article—“I don't believe in outing people.”

Much like the word feminist or the word liberal, the word outing became so politicized and reviled that it couldn't possibly be accepted—even as the broad practice it was invented to describe continues, slowly but surely, to become a part of mainstream journalism. Ask women on the street if they are feminists, and they'll likely say no more often than not. But ask them if they support equal pay for women, abortion rights, and sexual autonomy, and they'll likely say yes a lot more often. That change in attitudes is the real measure of the feminist movement—not the acceptance of the word feminist itself.

The same is true of outing: Most gay people may say they're opposed to outing, but ask them if it's right for a public figure's homosexuality to be reported on—or at least questioned—when it is relevant to a larger story, and most will probably agree. And that attitude is the real measure of how far equal reporting on gay public figures has come in the past ten years.

This article was first printed in The Advocate. Copyright 2000 by Michelangelo Signorile. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be used or reproduced without written permission except in brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.