July 13, 2004

Milbarge: Come Out With Your Hands Up!

by Guest Contributor

There's a bit of a hubbub on Capitol Hill these days, as Congress prepares to take up debate over the Federal Marriage Amendment. Although I'm sure the FMA will engender many hubbubs, the particular hubbub of which I speak is about plans/threats/calls from gay rights activists to out Congressional staffers who work for members of Congress supporting the FMA.

I first heard about all this from a post on NRO's The Corner about the outing of Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, although I didn't think that was really a secret. That ended up leading to this story in the Washington Blade and this one in the Post. Naturally, Wonkette picked it up. And I've also seen interesting thoughts from Anthony Rickey and Chris Geidner.

The other day I had a chat with one of the gay people I work with. He's out and active in the gay community. He and his partner are adopting a kid, and all the baby-lovers in the officer are going goo-goo over that. Our office is very gay-friendly, which I define to mean it's no big deal if someone's gay. This lawyer's partner's name is listed on our home address directory just like every other spouse. Anyway, partly because of the office dynamic and partly because of this particular guy's attitude, it wasn't weird for me to pop in and talk about outing. To save me time, I'll call him George, although that's not his name.

As it turns out, George knows quite a few congressional staffers, both closeted and out, I think largely from his political activities. And George acknowledges that his views are somewhat out of the gay mainstream because he thinks outing is legitimate in certain circumstances. However, he's certainly not the type of person who thinks it's always legitimate and that no one has a right to be in the closet. He thinks the closet is destructive for the gay community, but he understands that some people feel they need to be there.

That said, George thinks that some closeted gays are doing a particular disservice to themselves and other gays if they work for a member of Congress who supports the FMA. There are various issues to balance here, of course. A low-level staffer who has no policy role in working for a moderate Senator is one thing, and different than, say, the chief of staff to that Senator, who is probably in a position to influence policy choices. However, "If you're working for a Jesse Helms type, I don't care if you're answering the phones; you ought to be out." My question was what obligation a gay staffer has to change things, to confront the boss over an issue like the FMA. For that matter, what obligation do any of us have to change the world?

George's response was that gays do have an obligation to make things better, to make it so that all gays can enjoy equal rights and no one has to be in the closet. Maybe all the staffer can do is subject the member of Congress to awkward pauses when the issue comes up, but that's a start. He's realistic that it's not going to change a lot of votes, and maybe it won't change any. But he didn't think that helping get the FMA passed was a good job for a gay person to have.

I'm not trying to say that my friend George is necessarily right. And note that I may be missing a nuance or two from our discussion a few days ago. I wasn't taking notes or anything. But, I thought that the least I could do, in addition to thinking about it from my remove as a heterosexual, was to go talk to the only gay person I know with whom I could comfortably discuss this issue. I realize it's not for me to say whether anybody should be out, or how much any person, straight or gay, should talk about his or her sexual preferences.

I guess I just have two points. First, I wish I lived in a world without a closet, where it wasn't shameful to be gay. But, I don't think it's right for me to out anyone. However, that mentality ends up making this whole thing only a "gay issue." It doesn't often make the "mainstream" media, unless somebody famous gets outed. (I just wonder how this would play if straights were doing the outing.) But I don't think this ought to be solely a gay issue. I think it should concern us all that people are in that position.

Secondly, I know I saw somebody else mention this, but I've lost it now. But I also find it very interesting that the media cover a story like this from the perspective of the outing and whether it's proper, while trying to avoid covering it from the "Senator X is a hypocrite" angle. We see this all the time, the process story. Instead of "stooping" to cover where the President puts his privates, the big media outlets cover the story of the tabloids spreading salacious details. I think constantly covering the-story-of-the-story is bad journalism, in large part because it lets the big media outlets feel better about themselves ("We're above all that!") than they have a right to. The Post won't run an outing story, but it will damn sure run a story about the story outing someone. So, is it a legitimate news story when someone is outed? What does the-story-that-there's-a-story reporting accomplish?

I don't know what the answer to this is, but I'll try to ruminate more on it. I would appreciate any feedback readers care to share in the comments section.

July 13, 2004 6:38 PM | TrackBack
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