Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Out, Out Damn Spot

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.


dykewife said...

i'm of two minds when it comes to outing. my first thought is that who a person chooses to love is not anyone else's business.

my second thought is that by being out one makes being gay/lesbian/trans/bi more normal, we tend to look pretty much like everyone else. that makes being out a political stance, an affirmation that it's ok to be out.

but the truth of the matter is that we live in a heterosexist homophobic world. being outed can not only ruin careers because being gay isn't protected in the usa as a right, but can kill a person.

i'm fortunate in that being a lesbian woman my rights are protected under the canadian charter of rights and freedoms. i can marry a woman. i can't be fired for being a lesbian. i can't be denied housing for being a lesbian. my sexual orientation can't be used as grounds for being an unfit parent.

that isn't the case in the united states. that isn't the case in most countries of the world and in some, being gay/lesbian is a death sentence if the person is outed.

no, the world won't change until more people come out and show that gay/lesbian/bi/trans people are a part of the world. however, that doesn't mean the rest of the world will accept that normality as fact.

sad, yes?

Elizabeth McClung said...

I am of one mind when it comes to outting: no; it's a right to choose.

I appreciate the blog and the research done, however, I cannot understand how a person who talks about the hell of texas (still #1 in annual murders of gay men as hate crimes!) can get up and demand that all LGB people come out. There are genuine consequences in the US, yes, dear old US, for people who come out. There are states where you can be denied jobs, housing, even services. But, as likely, depending on the area, you will be physically, social and emotionally hurt or killed.

While LGB hate crimes may be #3 statistically (in the few states they are collected) they are always number 1 in crimes of violence. Even here in dear old acceptable Canada, the number one reason for assault against youths is sexual orientation. And since I am not quite ready to step in like Jesus, for every time some drunk high school buddies in Prince George want to beat the living shit out of the local queer, I am certainly not going to stand up and advocate they jump out of the closet until they are good and sure they can survive that particular experience.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assertion about outing. It definitely shouldn't be used as a political strategem--that is basically using truth as a weapon and still stigmatizes sexuality. I don't think Elizabeth (above) is on the same page--we're talking public figures here, right? Anyway . . .

I'm still having issues with anonymity vs. visibility and the way some queers festishize the former and mock the latter (ahem, Bruce la Bruce) . . . but I can't find my words right now (and, no, I'm not drunk, yet).
Then there's the whole, "I'm not queer, I just like wrestling naked with other guys" thing which boggles my mind--and I know we're supposed to be all, "celebrate diversity", but I assign the "self-loathing" label to guys who can't/don't want to admit they're gay when really shouldn't I be saying, "To each their own," or whatever?

Ugh. I hate thinking.
The world would be easier if everyone were out. It would be even, um, more easier, if there weren't intolerant, bigoted assholes who oppress other people.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Gayprof, my big ole bag of angry just sorta opened up there, please don't take it personally. I like the dream of everyone being out; I've just been too scarred by the reality.

Doug said...

Great post, Gayprof. Very thought-provoking as usual. I always reserve time for your blog cuz I know it won't be a quickie. ;)

I'm not sure I understand why you have little sympathy for Americans who refuse to come out. Just because they're not going to be executed by the state? Pain, misery, and death can still result, and I don't know anyone who honestly seeks those out.

"The community" can out an individual just as the press can reveal a heterosexual sex scandal. Individual choices about being out are the same as any other individual choice. Being honest removes the risk of scandal.

You assume politics should follow the same rules as the rest of society. Of all "professions," politics seems the least connected to reality.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, GayProf, for writing the most cogent analysis of the idea and practice of "outing" (I really hate the term, BTW, but have never been able to think of a better one). The intarweb needs a bit more gravitas like yours.

Anonymous said...

Since I really don't feel up to dodging a bunch of flaming emails (that sounds wrong), I'm just going to shut up today.
You probably already know how I feel about this subject, and I feel it very strongly. Sigh.
Someday I'll learn to just leave pedantic, generic comments.

Anonymous said...

Who's the cute guy on the left side of the picture? :)

GayProf said...

Okay -- It took me a bit of time to figure out why there were comments not appearing here. Turns out, blogspot published this entry three times. I tried to get everybody back into this one post -- Sorry if I missed anybody's comments so far.

Dykewife: Yes, Canada and most of the EU are light-years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to basic civil protections for queer folk. Still, I imagine in Canada and other places the threat of physical violence persists. This, I think, is another reason why we need a better sense of community and common defense.

Doug: Perhaps saying that I don’t have sympathy for those who aren’t out was a bit too rough. I recognize and do sympathize that different people come to terms with their sexualities in complex ways. For some people, it is a long, painful road before they can be honest with themselves.

What I do think, though, is that if you are secure enough to have a penis or vagina in your mouth, you are secure enough to be up-front and honest about that.

Elizabeth: I don’t mind angry – Angry is good sometimes. Indeed, I did live in one of most conservative counties in one of the most conservative states in the nation. Somehow, I figured out a way to be out. Trust me, it didn’t take much for my imagination to think about who might be sitting in my class of 180 with a gun ready to blow me away.

That aside, I am not looking for people to be out when they sense real physical danger. If there is anything queer folk know, it’s how to gauge the safety of particular situations. We spend our entire lives unconsciously sizing things up. I am not looking for an army of martyred queer folk. Dead queers will be of little use to us.

Still, I am not convinced that those moments justify a total lack of outness. In some cases, there are real economic hardships that keep people trapped in a particular community. Many other circumstances, though, allow a person to leave and find a better place to live that is more friendly for queer folk. We can vote with our feet, as it were.

Yes, there are genuine consequences for being out. Those of us who are out are often penalized. Why, though, should we not expect members of our community to make some sacrifices?

Finally, I hate to draw the race parallel because it doesn’t always go well and often becomes too simple. I am going to make an exception, though. The U.S. is a place where being Latino or African American often represents a real danger of being beaten or murdered as well economic consequences. Welcome to the club, queer folk.

Unlike [white] queers, though, people of color are not able to “hide” or obscure their social identities in most circumstances. Our failures at being visible is often a reason cited by racial minorities for not wanting to organize with us (and they are presuming an all-white queer community, ignoring their own members of color who are queer – but that is a different entry entirely).

Jeremy: I don’t believe in the total gay/straight binary. So, it’s possible that there are guys who “just like to wrestle other guys naked.” This might not make them “gay,” but it sure as hell means they aren’t straight. It would be a queer tendency, if you ask me. This, perhaps,is where "queer" can be most useful. Those who don't meet the narrow guidelines of sexuality all fall under the queer umbrella and should also be expected to be up-front and honest about it.

Jamesdotca: Yeah – outing and outness became cumbersome in this entry as terms. I have plenty of gravitas to go around.

Chris: Yeah – It makes me sad, though, that you would shy away from the debate. We probably don’t see eye-to-eye on this particular issue. Still, your point of view is important for us to come to some type of understanding.

j: Bill Moyers -- Still think he is cute?

Anonymous said...

Um, I just really want to say that I think Alanis got a bad rap for that song. It really is the definition of irony that most people use.

Yes, I'm avoiding the bigger topic.

Kalv1n said...

I personally agree on all of this. However, I don't think that we should out people in their formative years. I don't see any sense in outing someone who is trying to get an education to their parents who will subsequently be cut off and without resources. Furthermore, I think that outing needs to be done by gay people, not straight people.

ChristopherM said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Oh, please! What a bunch of frightened, cry baby comments. GayProf is right. How do you think we have progressed as fast and as far as we have? By being invisible? No, by people coming out and putting their asses on the line, that’s how. Out, out and more out. Certainly on the top of my “should be outed” list are those public officials, congressional staffers and campaign advisors who are working against us.

I seriously doubt anyone who comes out, even someone forced out of the closet, isn’t going to have a happier life as a result. You might get fired from a job where you live in daily fear of being exposed? Boo-hoo. Grow some balls. Take your intelligence and talents elsewhere. It’s their loss.

Yes, there is risk but should some of us assume all of that risk, while others hide and wait to reap the benefits of our efforts?

Getting down off my militant soapbox, I know some people get off on public bathroom sex or in the rest stop shrubbery, but I suspect this is largely the domain of closet cases who want to remain anonymous. The general public has every right to find such behavior inappropriate. It reflects badly on the rest of us. Get a room!

Anonymous said...

We need to out our authentic selves in order to not just free ourselves personally, but to also free our frightened culture. I believe that gay person by gay person, word by word, act by act, we can build a life, a community, and a world which celebrates individuality and inclusion. When we think and feel and act on our sexuality privately and in secret only, even when thousands of others are doing the same thing, there is a kind of subversive quality to it, as though it is something to be ashamed of. That shame is what destroys us ... not just personally but as a collective.

It's nothing to do with being a politician or a celebrity journalist or someone in the public eye. Every single closeted gay, no matter who you are, hurts all of us because in remaining hidden you detract from all our visibility. I think that's the truth of it.

Having said that, of course I understand and respect the reasons of most who are frightened to come out. As for the hypocritical gay politicians who actively choose to work against us, they fall into a category of their own. They deserve no respect or consideration when it comes to outing them.


ChristopherM said...

Some of these comments about outing everyone come from what I can only imagine is a very clouded place of privilige. Sure, it would be one thing for me to be out as a lawyer (when I graduate!) with transportable skills and presumably some cash to get me through were I to be fired. Could the same be said of my mother? If she were outed and then fired from her no-benefits job at a restaurant, is the good of the community going to feed her and pay her bills? Not every gay person exists in this marketing demographic that has been created for us, where we all have buckets of disposable income to spend on designer jeans and exotic flavored vodka. Certainly they may end up happier, long as they don't end up homeless first. Visibility is powerful, but let's not forget that a price comes with it.

I agree with Gayprof that outing for vengeance is distasteful, and the message it sends is that being gay is shameful. It sickens me to watch the Radical Right as they eat their own once they are outed (as if they didn't all already know!). The alternative, though, is just as distasteful. I just can't imagine sitting back allowing them to enjoy the, shall we say "fruits", of being gay while working to prevent us from taking full part in society. I feel the best route is to out those bastards working against us while holding up our own lives as examples of what healthy unashamed queers can be when we live our lives with honesty. The point is to show the closet as shameful and hipocrisy as shameful while being out and proud is the healthy alternative.

Anonymous said...

Though Chris & I have different opinions on this issue, for the life of me, I can't understand how some people think it's fine that elected officials, in the name of jebus, or whatever, are working overtime to keep us as second class citizens, while living super-duper secret lives on the sly. Whether it be lewd IM's with kids, or some late night cock-gobbling in a train station men's room, these people supposedly work for us, and at the same time, are working against us. I want to know who the hypocritical bastards are, and the people who put them in their positions of power have the right to know. Off with their heads! Just my .02. Excellent post, GayProf.

Will said...

I agree very strongly with Steve on the closeted acting as witch hunters against those who are out.

However, I would like to point out that there is a severely reduced incentive for public figures to come out if they're greeted with contempt or declared totally irrelevant by some [or many]in the gay community as Lance Bass, for example, was treated when he came out. If we truly believe that everyone should be out, then those who take the big step need to be welcomed and not dismissed or derided when they do.

GayProf said...

JPDC: Alanis should have called that song, “Isn’t it an Interesting Coincidence?”

Kalvin: I only grapple with the world of adults – mostly because I think children should be busy working in factories anyway.

WayOut: Thanks for sharing.

I haven’t decided the tearoom issue in my own mind. While not my scene, I am not sure I am ready to pass judgement.

Cooper: I agree that the closet is about keeping shame alive – Indeed, this society still puts shame around all types of sex and sexuality, not just same-sex sex.

Christopher: I appreciate your point. Indeed, economic issues are important.

However, there are many, many, many working-class individuals who do risk their jobs by being out. I am not convinced that only those with a certain level of education or economic status are able to accomplish these goals.

With my bloggy, I have been fortunate to hear a number of people’s stories about being out. They have cut across a number of different socio-economic backgrounds.

Steve: I want to know who all the queer folk are – everywhere.

Will: You make an excellent point about reception. You are right that Lance was treated with disdain simply for being Lance. Any outness should be applauded.

My issue with Lance, however, has to do with his “Straight-Acting-Gay” moniker, which I find to be a form of internalized homophobia.

Anonymous said...

I think that closeted hypocrites deserve to be outed. If a closeted gay celeb or politician is using his clout to hurt gay folks (by supporting anti-gay legislation for example), then we should out him. Not for vengence, but simply to neutralize his clout and render him ineffective.

However if a closeted gay politician is generally gay-supportive but not publically out, then why would we out him (or her)? What does the community stand to gain, if he is already supportive?

Every gay person who considers himself "publically out" can remember a previous time in his life when he was only out to family/friends, or mostly closted. Each gay person comes out gradually, in his own timeframe and in his own way. Politicians and celebreties are no different, and to force the issue for a friend of the gay community can only cause resentment. However,
hypocrites deserve to be outed.

The reality is that "outing" is often ineffective. The outed person can simply deny being gay, and it simply becomes the outer's word against the outee. The media is often complicit in protecting the closeted status of politicians and celebrities, so there is often little attention paid. Unless the person being outed is clearly a hypocrite and living a double-life, the public won't care much and probably will perceive the outing as an invasion of privacy.