On the Outs

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 anti-gay 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.

Even liberals have a few laughs at the headlines and then move on. Sure, outing might support a broader narrative about conservatives being two-faced. It might allow us to feel like we're "punishing" a politician who has long voted against fundamental rights for others. But I'd argue it may actually add to the stigmatization of LGBT Americans by reinforcing the notion that being gay is shameful -- a punch line, not an identity.

The trouble with using hypocrisy as a way of attacking anti-gay politicians like Craig or Ashburn is that it implies that the problem is the inconsistency between their political positions and private lives -- and thus both sides are equally at fault in creating the inconsistency. If Craig were a straight man who supported anti-gay policies, he wouldn't be a hypocrite -- but he'd be just as wrong. If being gay makes it worse, the logic follows, then there must be something wrong with being gay.

Massa's recent scandal is instructive because hypocrisy doesn't really come into play -- the freshman Democratic congressman doesn't have a particularly anti-gay record. While a member of Congress groping his staffers is certainly worthy of outrage, in Massa's case the gender of the people in question seemed to be just as important as the harassment itself. That's pretty revealing.

Liberals love to roll our eyes and note that we're not the ones who wasted the country's time by impeaching a president over a blow job. But when we wag our fingers about the sexual proclivities of Republican politicians -- especially just to make cheap jokes about the gender of the people in question -- we are not much better than moralizing conservatives.

All of this is not to say that a few jokes about Massa's "snorkeling" will directly harm gay Americans. Still, it is worth thinking about the cumulative effect of all our chatter about gay sex scandals. We might think we're shaming politicians for their hypocrisy or workplace improprieties, not their sexuality.

But we should tread carefully. After all, the reason we dislike anti-gay politicians in the first place is that we don't believe sexuality should ever be a "gotcha."

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