From Outrage to Outcast: Is Outing Members of the GLBT Community Ever O.K.?
This could be a horrible thing. This post may be the proverbial train wreck the curious must watch--an opinionated heterosexual writing about a controversial topic deemed "queer," as it relates to the sensibilities and politics of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. But I'm writing about it because, well, it's a train wreck with cars twisted and toppled, hanging precariously over cliffs, heavy with philosophies about the right to privacy, journalistic integrity, the sanctity of 12 step programs, and the circumstances under which homosexual politicians or pastors should be outed.
But I can write this, I tell myself, because straight or gay, humans generally don't care for hypocrisy and that is what this story is really about: hypocrisy, which probably began when humans first preached moral laws. There's no need, however, to go back that far. Our story can start with Outrage, a documentary about outing closeted gay politicians who actively bash homosexuals and fight gay rights legislation, crafting or voting for policies that perpetuate discrimination against the GLBT community.
Is it still a big deal to come out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual? Coming out as gay or lesbian presents a number of issues too complex to discuss in the space allotted, but revealed in pop culture pokes at both homosexuality and homophobia, such as the furor following the recent airing of a Boondocks episode skewering movie mogul Tyler Perry, who is a Christian asserting heterosexuality. Otherwise, it seems lately that celebrities have been popping out all over, declaring they play for both teams, to use one of society's euphemisms for bisexuality.
I'm never sure anymore in this "enlightened age" what the big deal is about these revelations, homosexual or bi, unless I explore my heterosexual privilege and relate the announcements to a time when some fair-skinned black people, who could pass for white publicly, declared they had African blood. Declaring oneself to be "Negro" in times past--especially if you were a celebrity with fair skin and straight or wavy hair--was not simply stating the obvious, but a political statement akin to the "Black is Beautiful" movement that came later.
Long after the Civil War ended, some states had "one drop" laws and banned marriages between white people and black people. Being black meant you couldn't eat or buy goods wherever you chose, and any action that indicated you believed yourself to be equal to white people was condemned. The stigma of being black as well as being in love with a black person is one of the reasons the late Lena Horne kept her marriage to a white man secret for a few years.
The story of the "tragic mulatto" has been explored or exploited in old films such as Pinky and Imitation of Life and called "a myth" by some critics in the black community. However, when similar observations have been made of members of other groups, such as those in the Jewish community who have misrepresented ethnic identity to get ahead, people seem to accept more readily that it happens. When I was a child, I saw the movie Gentleman's Agreement one night on television and understood how bigotry also pressured some members of other ethnic groups to hide their ethnicity.
A person mistaken for being purely of Anglo Saxon descent held a key to enormous social capital if he or she would simply deny self and family and pass for white. Consequently, the black community gladly claimed these individuals who in turn claimed them. The community applauded them because the pride, sacrifice, and courage it took for fair-skinned blacks to admit their black blood in the past seemed an act of love and solidarity, a comment that "I'm not afraid of who I am and it will be all right. One day we will be accepted as equal and deserving of respect."
However, these famous, fair-skinned people weren't "outed" by others. Neither did they make announcements to the newspapers. I recall no scandals in which an actor or musician who appeared white called a news conference or told a reporter "I am black." They simply didn't deny it when people referred to them as "colored" or "Negro" in interviews. However, there were some celebrities that I remember being discussed when I was a child that people in the black community said were "passing for white" or as we say in New Orleans were "passe blanc."
As late as the 1970s people would still express shock to discover a known celebrity might be African-American as though there was something wrong with being black. I remember watching George Lucas's movie American Graffiti in 1973 when it was in theaters with a group from my boarding school in Virginia. A character referring to Wolfman Jack, a famous radio DJ, said, "My parents won't let me listen to the Wolfman since he's colored," which is actually not true.
A boy sitting a few rows behind my all-girls group whispered loudly in the predominantly white theater, "What! I didn't know the Wolfman was a n*gger." Wolfman Jack didn't care that listeners thought he was black because the misunderstanding helped his career. I wouldn't be surprised to learn this is the logic of some of the young women in the music industry when it comes to saying, "I kissed a girl." They score points for association but face none of the stigma ordinary people in the GLBT community would face if they made such announcements in a career or social setting.
But what about people who are definitely gay or bisexual and are ashamed of being so, and, therefore, struggle with coming out to the world? Periodically a story about a gay man or woman being forced from the closet by someone else's loose lips hits mainstream media. Last year, it was Meredith Baxter outed by Perez Hilton. People had two questions back then: (1) How could she not know she was gay all those years? And (2) Was it right for Hilton to out her?
I thought it was not right for him to out her if she didn't want the world to know because I think we should honor the privacy of ordinary people and celebrities regarding sexual orientation. However, I feel differently about public figures such as politicians and influential religious leaders who make a point of railing against homosexuality. That kind of behavior smacks of a hypocrisy that I think harms society.
So, on that point, according to an article in Lavender Magazine about Lutheran pastor Tom Brock's sexual orientation, I agree with some activists in the GLBT community.
The GLBT community and its allies have a wide variety of principled viewpoints, often conflicting, on just how out a GLBT person should or should not be, as well as what constitutes healthy sexuality or sexual excess. Both sides of these big philosophical questions are discussed and argued conscientiously every day. ... However, it’s a universal consensus among GLBT individuals and straight allies that to bash GLBT persons physically and/or sociopolitically—but then turn around, and be homosexually active oneself—is hypocrisy.
Titled "Anti Gay Lutheran Pastor Protests Too Much," the article was written by John Townsend, who infiltrated a 12-step, Alcoholics-Anonymous-type program to get the scoop on Brock, a religious leader in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who is vehemently anti-gay. The pastor has gone so far as to say in a video that has been removed by the Lutheran Church online (but available at Queerty or in this post), that God sent a tornado to hit a Lutheran Church meeting because it voted to ordain openly gay people.
With the Lavender Magazine story breaking, Brock was "placed on leave (from North Minneapolis's Hope Lutheran Church) during an investigation, expected to last about two weeks," according to the MinnPost. He has served at the church since 1981, says his church's website.
This train wreck becomes a more shocking spectacle when we consider how the reporter, Townsend, breached the trust of the 12-step program called Courage, which is designed for homosexuals who seek not to have sex with other homosexuals. Townsend is said to have lied to enter the group, and his tactics have come under scrutiny. At the New York Times Media Decoder blog, Elizabeth Jensen reviews the ethics of how Townsend collected information on Brock and quotes media ethics experts who disagree with Lavender Magazine's president, Stephen Rocheford, about those methods:
Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, said she believes “these kinds of deceptive techniques should only be used for the most important stories that cannot be obtained any other way.” ... She said that readers or viewers might conclude that “If you lied to get the story then why should I believe that the rest of this story is true?”
Some of the objections echo those addressed during the ACORN scandal involving a conservative activist secretly videotaping ACORN workers and misrepresenting not only who he was to ACORN, but also misrepresenting to the public how he approached ACORN. BlogHer CE, Kim Pearson, discussed that case earlier this year (see "Why James O'Keefe Is Not A Journalist"). Townsend, however, has not misrepresented how he came by Brock's story.
At Media Matters, where a post references Outrage and an NPR review of the documentary that did not name the politicians outed in the film, writer Karl Frisch talks about the Brock case and argues that it and the edited NPR review illustrate a mainstream media double standard for naming names. He asserts the MSM will identify politicians guilty of other types of hypocrisy but not those guilty of gay bashing who have been outed by others as gay.
He thinks that the people who berate Lavender Magazine and Townsend for tactics used to get the Brock story are guilty of promoting this same type of double-standard when addressing the investigative approach used to out Brock. Part of his argument illuminates the convoluted aspects of outing as well as the culture of denial and protection in the gay and straight world. He quotes from NYT's interview with Lavender's president. Both Frisch and Rocheford think the Courage 12-step program is bogus:
[Rocheford] said he debated whether to use information from the support group, but decided that “I don’t consider it a legitimate 12-step group. Those are there to help people with addictions and since when is homosexuality an addiction?” ... The story, he added, “was legitimate, it was legal, and we did it punctiliously with ethical and legal considerations.”
I posit that how anyone feels about Brock's outing may be connected to what the person believes about homosexuality to some extent. In Rocheford's statement and a comment mentioned in the NYT article from an advertiser who said she would pull her ads from Lavender because she believes '12 step programs, regardless of what is at issue or who attends, are sacred' plus NPR's unwillingness to name the politicians in the Outrage documentary, we see our societal confusion about sexual orientation magnified. These decisions reflect our pain and bigotry--from homophobia to heterosexualism fueled by culture as well as religion--and our potential transition to broad acceptance as cultural and religious beliefs are dissected and dismantled. It's been said that the first steps toward removing a taboo is to openly discuss why it's taboo.
Do most people in society believe the science that suggests sexual orientation is not a personal choice but a genetic state or not? Does society still adhere to beliefs that to be gay is to be morally deficient or physically inferior?
If the answer is no, that there's nothing wrong with being gay, then we should start seeing responses to so-called outings and accusations of homosexuality change in both the gay and straight communities, especially when the person outed or identified is in the public eye. So, if you are straight and are called "gay"--an early hurdle, for instance, for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan--then choosing to answer "I am straight" will carry no penalty from the gay community, nor will choosing to say "Yes, I am gay" carry a penalty from the straight community, and remaining silent because you value your privacy will be considered an honorable choice as well. We are far from there.
But let's look at the societal attitude reflected by NPR's refusing to name the politicians outed in Outrage and the real issue in the Brock case.
NPR may not have named the men because it seeks to avoid a lawsuit or public outcry from supporters of the politicians who claim the Outrage film is based on lies. That sounds good on the surface, but libel and slander charges usually only arise when someone has been accused of committing a crime or being immoral and the untrue accusation hinges on malicious intent. So, we're back to the belief that it is wrong to be gay and to accuse someone of being homosexual is to ruin the person's career and chosen life in the same way you could once ruin a person's career and chosen life by identifying him or her as Jewish or African-American.
Any 12-step program is sacred is the argument against the Lavender outing of Brock. That also sounds right, but again we're left with is it wrong to be gay? By honoring the confidentiality of a 12-step program to stop gay people from having sex are we also approving the belief that to be gay is to be defective?
I think politicians who bash gays but are gay themselves are not to be trusted about anything. So, by default, I think hypocrites on matters that affect public policy should not be in positions to make policy. I feel the same way about the pastors of churches if those pastors spend a great deal of time denouncing a behavior that they practice regularly without owning that behavior. I think these kinds of leaders create a climate in which people who are honest about practicing a stigmatized behavior or openly accept themselves as they are will be persecuted while the leaders themselves lie to escape tribulation. The Jimmy Swaggart scandal of the 1980s exemplifies such hypocrisy.
Here one could argue that Swaggart hated himself for not being able to overcome what he believed to be a sin, sex with prostitutes. While science indicates being gay is not an elective behavior but a natural orientation for some humans and animals, in many Christian churches homosexuality is viewed as an abnormal choice, and that brings me to Brock. He was in the Courage program because he hates his attraction to other men. I think what he was doing in his denunciation of homosexuality is similar to what Jimmy Swaggart did. He hates himself and projects that loathing onto others he thinks are like him. That's why Brock was at the 12-step program, to overcome what he opposes in himself.
Was it right for a journalist to infiltrate that program because he thinks Brock's belief system is wrong? Aren't we allowed to believe whatever we choose in America?
The international director of Courage, Father Paul Check, says under any circumstance it was wrong for Townsend to breach the trust of his group. I agree in principle because I believe if you go to a support group of any kind, you have to feel safe to speak freely. However, it's usually a commitment that can only be expected from the genuine members of the group itself and those who sympathize with the group's purpose.
That's the problem with today's crumbling house of journalism. So many rooms of thought, so many secrets to expose, so little discourse about right versus wrong. It's wrong to out somebody who is quietly struggling with the decision to come out and live a life honestly, and therein lies our dilemma. Some of these people aren't struggling quietly. They're making great noises, verbally bashing people who choose not to hide, creating the climate in which discrimination and physical bashing may flourish.
So, I get what some in the gay community seem to be saying, which is pretty much "If somebody's making your life harder with hate speech and hiding under a sheet to do so, then you've got a right to investigate, confront your accuser, and pull off that sheet."
I'm a straight, black woman, but I see a parallel to my people's history here. Consequently, I'm all for pulling sheets off secretive people who are out to get me and mine through the most insidious means, by pretending to be one thing by day but another by night. If Brock knows his Bible, then he should understand why his hypocrisy could not stand. Nothing remains hidden, according to Luke 8:17.
How much more horrifying if I, a black woman, yanked a white sheet from the head of a klansman to find the person beneath it was black like me? To quote a Will Smith character, "Aww hell naw!" I'd have none of that, and if I could get to the PA system first, that person's life undercover would end.
The following video is a trailer for Outrage.
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