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Outing gays who sponsor hate on Capitol Hill

By Dara Purvis

The fight over the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage just got much more dramatic. Two activists, angry at gay representatives, senators and congressional staffers supporting the homophobic and discriminatory measure, declared open season on closeted politicos.

The Human Rights Campaign — a leading gay-rights organization — as well as the Gay, Lesbian, and Allies U.S. Senate Staff Caucus (GLASS), have denounced the move, but with a swarm of articles (appearing not only in the local gay newspaper The Washington Blade, but also in mainstream news like Newsweek) the tactic has been unusually successful both in attracting attention to a little-discussed issue and in fostering an atmosphere in Washington that hasn’t been seen since the days of McCarthyism.

My own feelings about the issue are very torn. On the one hand, I agree with the HRC that fostering a witch hunt of gays is not productive conduct by people trying to foster gay rights. But on the other hand, I freely admit to a frisson of schadenfreude whenever a particularly preachy family-values politician is caught cheating on his wife, and I was positively gleeful — still am, in fact — when John Paulk was removed from his post on the board of Exodus — the most prominent “ex-gay” group insisting that homosexuals can be “cured” and live happy lives of heterosexuality — for being caught inside of a Washington gay bar.


I despise hypocrisy, especially when exhibited by self-righteous prigs committed to imposing their false “values” on the rest of America. And the water is muddied further by the fact that Paulk first was seen in the bar by two staffers with the Human Rights Campaign, the very group denouncing the current effort, and publicity was guaranteed when the HRC spokesman sped to the bar with camera in tow after being called by the other two staffers to secure undeniable proof of Paulk’s presence there.

The un-closeting campaign, although it’s hardly organized enough to really be called that, began a few years ago, with a newspaper ad taken out in the Washington Blade condemning closeted gay members of Congress who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. The Advocate, a prominent magazine focusing on gay issues, was working on a story about the ad, and it was rumored that the magazine story, unlike the original ad, would name specific closeted politicians at whom the advertisement was aimed. Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona believed he would be outed in The Advocate’s article, and held a press conference to announce that he was gay. Ironically, The Advocate’s editors already had decided against printing Kolbe’s name. The Advocate does, however, note that Kolbe’s voting record on gay issues improved after he came out.

Similarly, former Republican congressman Steve Gunderson also came out in response to threatened outings both by gay activists and right-winger Bob Dornan. And it was only after his exit from the closet that Gunderson became an advocate for gay rights, even sitting on the board of the Human Rights Campaign.

The current incarnation of the Web site, run by John Aravosis and Robin Tyler, originally targeted Mary Cheney, Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter. The Web site “Dear Mary” condemned Mary Cheney for working to raise money and support for her father’s extremely conservative positions. Mary Cheney also gave the Republican party a more humanitarian face for a time, serving on the board of a Republican group supposedly promoting unity with the gay community — but much like how the idea of “compassionate conservatism” was discarded at the first opportunity, she quietly resigned once the administration began implementing its homophobic “values.” Visitors to the Web site were encouraged to write letters to Mary Cheney asking her to take a vocal position against her father’s policies.

Today, however, the Web site also includes a copy of the ad taken out in the Blade. It calls upon gays to “end your silence,” and for heterosexuals to “end your hypocrisy.” The ad ends with the text: “To all the Mary Cheneys in Washington, D.C., and beyond, both in the closet and out; to all those who claim to support our community but devote their careers to politicians who attack and demonize us; and to all those self-loathing and self-serving, we say this: For years our silence has protected you. Today that protection ends.”

Indeed, both Aravosis and Michael Rogers, another activist working in tandem with the Dear Mary site, have begun publishing names on their personal Web sites, beginning with familiar targets such as Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski (whose sexual orientation was first made an issue by failed labor secretary nominee Linda Chavez during Mikulski’s first campaign for Senate). While Mikulski still refuses to comment on the allegations, and has denied them in the past, she seems to have changed her position: She voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, but after her name appeared on Aravosis’ Web site she issued a statement saying she planned to vote against the proposed constitutional amendment.

Some of the criticism of the outings does seem focused on pragmatic as well as principled objections. Statements condemning the practice from the Human Rights Campaign and the Log Cabin Republicans, among others, center on the fact that the amendment is not expected to pass in the Senate, and saying essentially that the extreme tactic is not necessary. Others, including some of the targeted staffers, take issue with the idea that exposing someone’s personal life would affect their votes or the votes of their supervisors. The problem of closeted staffers, however, has had momentous impact in the history of equal rights.

In 1986, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell became the deciding vote in Bowers v. Hardwick, which affirmed the right of states to make homosexual conduct illegal. Powell agonized over his vote, and as he struggled with the decision he commented to one of his clerks that he had never even met a homosexual. Unbeknownst to Powell, the clerk was gay. He did not come out to Powell during his term on the court. Much later in life, Powell said his vote in the case was the vote he regretted the most from his time as a Supreme Court justice. Obviously, it’s impossible to say that had the clerk, or any of Powell’s previous closeted clerks, come out to Powell that he would have voted differently, but considering that Powell’s private discussions of the case focused on how he didn’t know any gay people, and that he couldn’t identify with the issues at all, it is certain that knowing that one of his clerks was homosexual would have had a profound effect on his decision-making process.

So if exposing someone’s homosexuality might help a larger cause, is there a principle that nevertheless holds that their privacy should be sacrosanct? Rep. Barney Frank, who came out voluntarily in 1987, has said that closeted politicians “don’t have the right to be a hypocrite; you don’t have a right to exempt yourself from the negative things you do to other people.” The same type of hypocrisy has led to previous exposures of private conduct — of marital infidelities committed by Republicans persecuting President Clinton for his sexual conduct, of supposed abortions paid for by anti-abortion activists, and so on. But even as I draw those comparisons, I wince at equating homosexuality to cheating on your wife. The common thread, however, is not my moral judgment as to the conduct of the legislators, but rather the hypocrisy exhibited by those who benefit from publicly condemning behavior in which they personally engage in private.

It is unclear precisely where the line falls between appropriate exposure of hypocrisy and wrongful invasion of privacy. But it cannot be denied that knowing politicians, even conservative politicians and their staffers, are gay has an impact on the battle for gay rights. Even if politicians confound identity politics to the extent that they don’t fight for equal rights for themselves, merely knowing that a prominent and successful legislator, even a conservative Republican legislator, is gay casts a very different picture of “the homosexual lifestyle” than the leaders of the anti-gay crusade would like Americans to envision.

I can’t sign on to the idea of outing gays, and thus exposing them to the very real oppression still inflicted by our society, wherever they may be in our nation’s Capitol, for the greater good of eventually not persecuting gays at all. But I also can’t support the actions of politicians to deny equal rights to homosexuals at work and drive back to their gay partner at home without anyone pointing out what outrageous, selfish hypocrites they are being.


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