Within the past day or so the ubiquitous Joe. My. God. posed a series of scenarios to his readers. Each involved a male political figure who sought same-sex sex, but with differing levels of public hostility to the queer community. Joe asked if any or all of these different public figures should be “outed.” The wide range of responses and their levels of emotional intensity suggests that, as a group, we queer folk hardly have consensus. We saw suggestions ranging from “nothing about one’s personal life should be revealed without consent” on one side to “outing them is the only way to combat their hypocrisy" on the other side. Each camp felt certain in their position and some became a bit snippy. I am a tad concerned about how quickly we queers turn on each other when there we disagree.
That aside, what struck me is that this discussion brought to the forefront two fundamental issues that never actually found articulation. At the center of this debate is 1) the value of “outness” or how “outness” came about as a historical strategy for queers in the United States; and 2) the obligations or rights of an individual queer verses the larger community of queers. As Mr. Spock might ask, "Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one?"
Notions of “outness” as a political strategy are relatively new to the U.S. Only for the last thirty years or so have such ideas been circulating. Being out, early queer activists argued, took away the potential of being blackmailed for one’s sexuality. Moreover, if all queer folk came out, the sheer numbers and visibility would make it impossible for queers to lose their jobs over their sexuality.
Being out was not just about acknowledging to yourself an interest in same-sex sex. After all, men and women had been doing that for a long, long, long time. Rather, being out meant acknowledging your sexual interests and taking a firm political position for sexual freedom within our social context. One had to claim a public sexual identity.
Ironically (and it is technically ironic – not a fake Alanis Morissette irony), the strategy for being “out” developed as a means to combat the problems now faced by Congress men being threatened with exposure by queer activists. If one was up-front with their lives and interests, after all, then there would be no fear of losing your job or being booted out of office because you lied about it.
We don’t have to turn the clock back far to find instances when queer men and women’s exposure meant an end to their careers. Let’s take a look at 1964. In October 1964, a scandal erupted around the White House just a few weeks before the presidential election that pitted Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater. Police arrested Johnson’s top aide, Walter Jenkins, for having sex in a YMCA men’s room. The press seized on the story and Jenkins became a household name for “homosexual,” at least for a few weeks (Out magazine, incidentally, ran a story on Jenkins in 1999).
As soon as the story broke, Jenkins checked himself into a psychiatric hospital, claiming exhaustion, and could not be reached for comment. He would later explain that he never had sex with men except on those “extremely rare occasions he must have been under the influence of alcohol.” We’ve come a short way, baby!
I decided to take a look at some of the news coverage that surrounded Jenkins in 1964. Originally I even intended to compare news coverage of Jenkins verses coverage of Foley, but that became too much work. What? I have a job other than blogging – allegedly.
In 1964, having been found in the middle of a sex act with another man ended Jenkins’ political career (Jenkins is on the right in the picture). At no point did anybody with real power suggest that Jenkins could continue in his job. Instead, they used Jenkins' case as evidence that gay men and women (who were suspect anyway because of their gender) should never work in the government because they lie. Even the most sympathetic coverage, including a statement from LadyBird, called for charity based on Jenkins’ “illness.” The most severe called it a "Communist Plot."
To be honest, Jenkins certainly would not win any queer-heart awards. A week before his arrest, The Federal Aviation Agency gave a 32-year-old man his job back. He had been dismissed after he admitted to having sex with other men at the age of 18. The FAA only reinstated the employee after he “proved” that he had a “normal sex life and that the homosexual incidents had been youthful indiscretions.”
Just days before his own arrest, Jenkins issued a memorandum directing Federal departments to tighten their screening policies to avoid hiring, horrors!, another man with such a shaky sexual history as the FAA agent. Jenkins had a lot of chutzpah to so hypocritically issue such a memo when he found his good times at the local YMCA glory hole.
As soon as the Jenkins arrest became public, LBJ quickly and publicly washed his hands of Jenkins, despite their 25-year personal friendship. Without any sense of disconnect, Johnson prefaced a speech on social justice with a brief comment on Jenkins. Though his actual speech called for “a utopian society in which poverty and prejudice would be abolished,” his opening remarks made it clear that queers would never make it to this promised land. “In a government of three million men,” he stated, “some of them make mistakes.” Working for the government and having same-sex sex was illegal in 1964, by the way. “The only thing to do,” the newspaper paraphrased Johnson, “was to take their jobs away from them and ‘ask for their resignation’ and order impartial investigations.”
The only support for Jenkins that didn’t call him a traitor or a nut job came from the American Mental Health Foundation. In a letter to the New York Times, the director of that foundation stated, “The private life and inclinations of a citizen, Government employee or not, does not necessarily have any bearing on his capacities, usefulness and sense of responsibility in his occupation. . . The fact that an individual is homosexual, as has been strongly implied in the case of Mr. Jenkins, does not per se make him more unstable and more a security risk than any heterosexual person.” Jenkins probably appreciated the sentiment. Well, he might have appreciated it if he wasn't strapped to a bed being pumped full of sedatives at George Washington University Hospital at the time.
The notion of being “out” as a political strategy existed only at the fringe of society in 1964. Yet, many had started to push back against the oppressive and unfair apparatuses that regulated sexual behavior. On May 29, 1965, nine men and three women picketed in front of the White House to protest “Government discrimination against homosexuals.” Unlike Jenkins, these queer folk wanted to fight and did so openly.
After these many decades, being out is still the best and easiest strategy that we can take as individuals to fight for sexual freedom. In the U.S., people are no longer imprisoned for their sexuality. There are many places in the world where one faces state-sponsored execution for same-sex sex. I have little sympathy, therefore, for Americans who refuse to come out of the closet in their daily lives. Is it scary? Yes. Is it often hard? Yes. Does it mean risking your employment? Sometimes, yes.
If we accept that being out is a necessary political strategy, the question then becomes does the community have the right to decide to out an individual? To me, saying “no” implies that the individual has no responsibility or obligation to the larger population of queers. It ignores the real ways that the individual benefits from the committed struggles of all the queer folk who came before him or her.
I would suggest, though, that outing can only be done uniformly for it to be effective. Outing should not be reserved just for punitive actions or for revenge against individuals who have opposed or oppressed us. Doing so only reenforces the notion that being out is dangerous and costly. It puts new braces on the structures of the closet by making being “out” the same as being “harassed.” We lose that battle by making those same enemies appear like victims and our sexualities seem like curses.
Outing, if it is to be effective, must be done for all. I expect the same level of outness from evil Republican Senators as I do from dreamy news anchors. No distinction should be made between the Republican staffer or the Democratic Congressman. To suggest that it is okay for one person to hide, but not another, is to validate the notion that our sexualities are something to be kept out of view unless useful politically. It endorses the ideas that hiding and lying are natural and necessary parts of being queer. Staying in the closet only serves the needs of the individual, but being out and visible will serve all who want the freedom to express their erotic side.
This need not devolve into a “witch-hunt.” I am not suggesting that we go on a campaign to dig up evidence on every closeted queer person out there. Frankly, there are more important fights than outing campaigns.
We should not, however, be expected to endorse or support their silence or their lies. Our sexualities are never merely private matters. They have important implications and consequences for how we are able to navigate our lives, earn a living, and find security. Until we demand total honesty from within the community, we will constantly be threatened with exposure.