Magazine article The American Prospect

On the Outs

Magazine article The American Prospect

On the Outs

Article excerpt

Spring is in the air! The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming, and politicians are coming out of the closet left and right. Or rather, they're being pushed out. Rep. Eric Massa of New York confessed that he groped and tickled a male staffer. California state Sen. Roy Ashburn was spotted leaving a gay bar. They're just the latest two politicians whose outing has generated late-night talk-show punch lines.

We snicker at the details of these illicit affairs, especially when the leaders in question are anti-gay. And, many would argue, why shouldn't we laugh at Larry Craig's wide stance, Mark Foley's illicit instant messages, or Ted Haggard's taste for prostitutes? If you make it your business to meddle in the lives of gay Americans, we'll make your sexuality our business. Rep. Barney Frank distills this argument in the 2009 documentary Outrage: "There is a right to privacy, but there is no right to hypocrisy."

But it's worth stepping away from the cable-news chyrons and juvenile jokes to ask: Who are we really shaming when we mock politicians who are outed as gay? Are we training a spotlight on how America is still so homophobic that politicians in many areas of the country must keep their gay identities under wraps? Or are we doing the opposite and actively fueling a broader, more pernicious narrative that being gay is something to be ashamed of?

It's not as if the cable-news networks, with their wall-to-wall coverage, ever attempt to connect "outing" to the culture of repression and homophobia in the United States. And as TV viewers watched Jay Leno make jokes about Larry Craig in 2007, I doubt many were thinking, "What a hypocrite." I'm sure the more common reaction was something like, "What a pervert." Former Prospect writer Garance Franke-Ruta rightly characterized the hubbub over Craig's bathroom solicitation as a "pre-Stonewall morality fable."

One could argue that there are political gains to be won by outing, especially if sufficiently shamed antigay politicians resign from office. However, many don't resign. In the cases where they do, the odds are good that they will be replaced with a legislator who has an equally anti-gay record. After all, most of these politicians come from pretty conservative parts of the country. And the Republican Party doesn't seem too damaged by these scandals: The base just writes off the politicians as a few bad apples or accepts the narrative that being gay is an affliction requiring therapy. …

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