The Press Breaks Out: Once Used Only by Activists, Outing Is Growing Popular with Mainstream Reporters

By Ghent, Bil | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), October 13, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Press Breaks Out: Once Used Only by Activists, Outing Is Growing Popular with Mainstream Reporters


Ghent, Bil, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


ONCE USED ONLY BY ACTIVISTS, OUTING IS GROWING POPULAR WITH MAINSTREAM REPORTERS

The February 22 suicide of 28-year-old Sandy Hume, an up-and-coming reporter for The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, sent the Washington rumor mill into overdrive. Speculation reverberated throughout the city that the cause of the suicide was not alcoholism, as had been explained, but threats from prominent House Republicans to out him and his alleged sexual relationship with Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), the husband of former New York congresswoman Susan Molinari. The rumor gained momentum when Paxon, who was readying to fight House majority leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) for the number two position in the House, stunned the Washington establishment three days after Hume's death with his decision to quit politics to be with his family.

Instead of shying away from the politically sensitive stow, reporters from several major news organizations tried to confirm the rumors, which have never been verified and which Paxon vehemently denied. But the willingness of the Washington press corps to chase the story underscores how "outing," once considered off-limits to journalists, has become familiar territory for many reporters.

Indeed, in the case of the rumors surrounding Hume, reporters were tripping over each other in their rush to break the stow. Ann Northrop, who printed the unproven story about Paxon and Hume in her column for the newspaper Lesbian and Gay New York, said she fielded numerous phone calls from respected mainstream journalists about the affair. "When rumors flew about former speaker Tom Foley being gay, nobody wanted to touch it," says Northrop, who worked at CBS News during the 1980s. "Ten years later major news organizations went after [Paxon] enormously." (Like Paxon, Foley denied he is gay.)

Back in the early 1990s, the practice of outing public figures surfaced among gay activists as a way to wage a type of guerrilla warfare on the nation's power elite. Tabloid papers sometimes printed breathless stories about celebrities' secret lives. But a handful of journalists, mostly gay or working for the gay press, began to wage an outing campaign of their own based on more serious political considerations. (The Advocate was among the publications that engaged in outing at the time, but the magazine's present editorial policy prohibits the tactic.)

Chief among this crowd of activist-journalists was Michelangelo Signorile, whose "Gossip Watch" column in the now-defunct OutWeek magazine regularly named names, garnering the admiration or reproach--but always the attention--of gay men and lesbians, not to mention journalists, everywhere. Signorile believed then, as he does now, that outing people in the business world, the entertainment industry, or government would help lead to an equalization of heterosexuality and homosexuality within the media.

Northrop, who worked alongside Signorile when they were both at the direct-action group ACT UP, says the practice of outing really amounted to a new way of thinking about the closet and how it functions. "The whole business of secrecy was the assumption that there was something wrong with being gay," Northrop says. "What Mike did so brilliantly was turn that 180 degrees, saying true liberation and equality mean being open and honest."

But forcing someone to be out was--and still is, to many--ethically problematic. "It's kind of crude journalism to blend one's private life with one's public life to bring them down," says Dick Schwarzlose, a journalism professor at Northwestern University, noting that the activist underpinnings of outing could impair the impartiality of hard-news reporters. "How is a reporter supposed to regain credibility once a source has been outed?"

The mainstream press, especially, was quick to distance itself from the practice early on and rarely followed up on stories originating in the gay press. …

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