Whose Sex Secret Is It? : Do We Have a Right to Know a Public Figure’s Sexual Orientation? Recent Disclosures by Gay Activists, Media Fuel a Bitter Debate


Malcolm Forbes, the flamboyant publisher known for his relationships with hot-air balloons and Elizabeth Taylor, had been dead only a week when rumors about his sexual orientation hit the mainstream media.

In a USA Today gossip column, Forbes, the divorced father of five children and grandfather of nine, was described as “leading a gay lifestyle for at least the last five years.”

People magazine quickly offered similar observations, saying, “In recent years, Forbes’ exuberant night life generated persistent if unproven rumors of his homosexuality"--to which Forbes’ son Robert offered no comment except, “Well, I don’t like to see things about people’s private lives in print.” And last week, New York-based OutWeek, a gay-oriented weekly, followed with explicit details on the publishing tycoon’s reported sex life.

Though deceased, Forbes has become the latest target of “outing,” a growing practice in which alleged gay men, lesbians or bisexuals are involuntarily yanked from the sexual closet, typically by activists in the gay community.


But outing, or “tossing” as it’s also called, is not confined to dead folks incapable of having their privacy invaded or being libeled and retaliating with lawsuits. In the last two years, the hotly debated tactic has flourished, flinging more and more living celebrities out of their private sexual sanctums and into newspapers and magazines, primarily the gay press and supermarket tabloids but, increasingly, mainstream media as well.

In virtually all cases, outing is reserved for people who are already well known. Actors, politicians, gossip columnists and fashion designers have been named, usually by proud, open gays who, in some cases, claim to personally know the purported sex partners of those they expose. Well-known writers, entertainment moguls, professional athletes, Olympic medalists, rock musicians--or sometimes their reportedly gay or lesbian children--also have been tossed. Long practiced in private conversations in gay circles, outing now occurs on public placards at AIDS demonstrations. It happens in lectures. And it appears regularly in the gay press, in interviews with activists and in OutWeek’s notorious “Peek-a-Boo” feature, which is simply a list of names of famous people supposedly in the closet.

The practice is generating vigorous debate. In the gay community, outing--or the threat of it--is criticized by some as a form of psychological terrorism and hailed by others as a powerful political tool. While opponents argue that revealing anyone’s sexual orientation is an inexcusable invasion of privacy, many say outing represents the cutting edge of gay activism in the ‘90s.

Perpetrators contend that if the sexual orientation of respected, high-visibility gays and lesbians were revealed, others who are in or out of the closet would have more role models to consider--not just deceased media stars such as Rock Hudson, Liberace, attorney Roy Cohn, fashion designer Perry Ellis and National Conservative Political Action Committee founder Terry Dolan, all of whose sexual orientations were exposed as a result of AIDS.


Award-winning playwright Larry Kramer, an advocate of outing whose plays “The Normal Heart” and “Just Say No” obliquely reveal allegedly closeted gays in politics and in the entertainment industry, claims the large number of people hiding out is the reason gays lack the political clout other minorities have achieved.

“I’m HIV-positive and I haven’t got time to wait for 25 million (gay and lesbian) people to get their act together to help make the government pay attention to my illness and help save my life,” Kramer insists, volunteering, incidentally, that he hates the term outing.

“I’m not going to do it to a school teacher or someone like that, but I get very angry with people who are in a position to do good, like heads of studios, famous stars, politicians certainly, authors, sports stars--people who could be role models for a community that desperately needs them,” adds Kramer, who is also founder of the militant AIDS activist organization ACT UP. “We’re fighting for our lives now.”

Some supporters of outing are elected officials in high political office. U.S. Reps. Barney Frank and Gerry Studds, both of whom are openly gay, strongly back individuals’ rights to privacy but believe that outing is justified in certain instances.

“Where there are gay people who are engaged in gay bashing, they forfeit their right to privacy in general. They’re hypocrites and they should be brought out,” says Frank (D-Mass), noting that he voluntarily disclosed that he was gay after the press asked him about it in 1987.

Last June, Frank threatened to do some political outing of his own. He warned that he might name the names of secretly gay Republican officeholders after a Republican National Committee memo falsely implied that House Speaker Thomas Foley, a Democrat, was gay.

Frank never followed through with his closet shakedown. But two months after he threatened to expose others, a sexual secret of his own was revealed in the news. Responding to published accusations by a former personal aide, Frank admitted he had employed the man as an aide, then fired him after learning he was using the congressman’s apartment as a house of prostitution.

Like Frank, Studds represents Massachusetts. He has survived a gay sex scandal (he was censured in 1983 for acknowledging having had sex with a teen-age male page). And he, too, has been reelected since declaring he is gay.


“It seems to me an ethical case could be made for denying someone their right to privacy if their conduct threatens other people’s lives,” reasons Studds. He offers, as an example of a potential outing candidate, a politician who is “actively and effectively lobbying against AIDS legislation or AIDS education legislation.”

Forced from the closet himself when the page scandal broke seven years ago, Studds says he would have preferred to have come out voluntarily than to have been outed by the disclosure.

“No, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen that method or timing,” he allows. And though Studds doesn’t recast his experience as a blessing in disguise, he does say that “what could have been an unmitigated disaster has been turned into a positive.”

But before anyone else is abruptly exposed the way he was, Studds would like to see other strategies tried first. “If the hypocrisy reaches a certain level, the proper thing is to send someone quietly to speak with them, to give them fair notice,” the congressman recommends. “And if they continue to do things that really threaten, then I think you could make a case for outing.”

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Robert Bray has engaged in some of the alternative tactics Studds suggests.

“The policy of the task force is we uphold privacy in all cases no matter who the individual is or what their status is,” says Bray, the task force’s public information director. “The central issue of the national gay and lesbian movement is freedom, and we believe that coming out of the closet is an entirely personal and private decision that only an individual can make.”

At the same time, Bray points out that there is pervasive discrimination and defamation against gays throughout the country--"some of it perpetrated by gays who are in high public office.”

Thus, when Bray was dancing at a gay club in the nation’s capital and recognized a member of Congress who had voted against pro-gay legislation, he took action.


“I spotted this gentleman dancing with his boyfriend. . . . Instead of tossing or outing this congressman, I introduced myself on the dance floor and called to his attention the hypocrisy that he had been legislating against gays. He left the bar. He didn’t say anything. But I think he got the message. He started voting pro-gay and has been ever since. Outing would have been inappropriate in his case.”

Some well-known outing activists such as San Francisco-based novelist Armistead Maupin claim to have been exposing famous gay or lesbian hypocrites for as long as 12 years. (Among those Maupin revealed last year during an interview in San Francisco-based Gay Book magazine were a top Hollywood studio head, a popular record producer, several married actors, a real estate mogul and a married fashion designer. Maupin declined to be interviewed for this article, saying, through a spokesman, that he didn’t want to be known as a premier outing activist.)

In the meantime, as outing becomes more high-profile, the debate over whether it should be done “is just getting under way in the gay and lesbian community,” says OutWeek Editor Gabriel Rotello.

Bray recalls the first time outing was seriously discussed at a national forum: “In 1987, the issue of homophobic homosexual leaders was brought up at the ‘Gay and Lesbian War Conference’ in Washington, D.C., a convening of a couple of dozen gay and lesbian and AIDS leaders nationwide to discuss strategy. The camp swarmed (on the issue of outing).”

Today, he says, the ranks remain divided. In fact, many gays find the notion of outing disturbing and counterproductive.

“Heavily closeted gays and lesbians who have to be dragged kicking and screaming from the closet don’t make very good role models,” advises gay psychologist Paul Froman, a Los Angles-based member of the California State Task Force to Promote Self Esteem and Social and Personal Responsibility. If people need help in coming out, he suggests participation in National Coming Out Day each October, a celebratory occasion on which Froman says thousands of individuals have revealed their sexual orientation.

Stuart Kellogg, the former editor in chief of The Advocate, the biweekly gay news magazine based in Los Angeles, agrees that forced disclosures of sexual orientation do more harm than good.

“If people voluntarily come out of the closet that can go a long way towards saving young people’s lives,” says Kellogg, who resigned from his post last week to write books. “Many (closeted) gay people either live . . . dishonestly unhappy lives, kill themselves or do something close to killing themselves because of their depression. If someone they already honor comes out, and comes out voluntarily, it illustrates that homosexuality is not something to be apologized for. But if somebody is discovered to be gay, it just underscores the (perceived) need for people to be secret.”

Kellogg, whose publication generally avoids outing but printed the name of an anti-gay politician subjected to it, also notes that gay people have considerable investment in privacy law. “That’s where we’re going to get effective gay-rights laws,” he predicts. “If we don’t want Georgia policemen, for example, coming into our private bedrooms, we’d better look out for other people’s privacy as well.”

Robert Peterson, The Advocate’s Western region correspondent, has repeatedly reported on outing and says he understands the anger and frustrations from which it springs. Yet he still disapproves: “I think there’s going to be an incredible reaction within the gay community at these tactics and their destructiveness. There’s nothing to be gained from outing. . . . And the public at large will never respect a group of people that cannibalizes its own.”

Responds Michelangelo Signorile, the OutWeek feature editor who wrote the story on Forbes, “I see (outing) as teaching our own. I want to be able to tell the kids who are gay who they can look up to.”

In the meantime, are publications that name closeted gays opening themselves to lawsuits? Signorile says no libel or invasion-of-privacy suits have been filed or threatened against OutWeek.

Floyd Abrams, a highly regarded New York-based constitutional attorney, says it’s hard to tell whether, if filed, such suits would be successful: “It would not be a frivolous claim for someone who leads an entirely private gay life--and whose sexual orientation is disclosed solely for the purpose of disclosure--to bring an action claiming a violation of his rights. There could be a very serious First Amendment response because this area has not been ruled upon by the Supreme Court. Even if someone were a public figure . . . there would be a good deal of jockeying in the courts before we knew the answer to the question about his rights.”

In the case of Oliver Sipple, the gay Vietnam veteran who became a public figure in 1975 when he knocked away the revolver fired at President Gerald Ford by Sara Jane Moore, the legal jockeying lasted several years.

After Sipple was lauded as a hero, his friends disclosed to newspaper reporters that he was active in gay social and political circles. The stories, in effect, outed Sipple and were big news to his family back in Detroit. Sipple sued seven major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, claiming his privacy had been invaded.

He testified that the revelation increased his psychological problems, created an estrangement from his parents and was responsible for his increased drinking. His lawsuit was thrown out by a San Francisco Superior Court judge. But the case dragged on. In 1985, he lost again when a state Court of Appeal held that Sipple had become newsworthy and that his sexual orientation was part of the story.

Sipple was found dead last year in his $344-a-month San Francisco apartment, surrounded by bottles of bourbon and 7-Up.

Meanwhile, exposures of sexual orientation increase, and both the straight and the gay media are grappling with the ethical issues.

“If a person is gay and is in a successful undertaking, what right do we have to probe into that (sex life) as long as the person is doing a responsible job?” asks press critic Norman Issacs, the former associate dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and author of “Untended Gates: The Mismanaged Press.”

“We’re so damn careless all the time. It looks to me as if Western society is kind of on the brink of withdrawal from the whole system of values and obligations. . . . The cruddy press (supermarket tabloids) is starting to be the tail that wags the dog. Every time they come up with something, boom, there we (mainstream media) are. We start to quote them as if they’re important.”

Last week, for example, in a story on the outing phenomenon in the San Francisco Chronicle, the names of an allegedly closeted gay fashion designer and the reportedly undeclared lesbian daughter of a famed pop star were named.

The article repeated a name that appeared in OutWeek magazine and another from a supermarket tabloid story. The Chronicle report did not include evidence to substantiate the claims of sexual orientation and did not offer responses from the individuals who were named.

“We wrote this story because there is a debate taking place in the gay community and there’s a sizable gay community in San Francisco,” says Chronicle City Editor Dan Rosenheim. “People were mentioned in passing. All of the people have been the object of articles in the gay and the straight press. . . .

“We didn’t feel we were telling anybody anything that’s new by mentioning that these people’s names came up in the debates,” notes Rosenheim, adding that millions of people had already read about the pop star’s daughter in supermarket tabloids and that the fashion designer’s supposed sexual orientation had been written about “extensively” in the gay press and also in a gossip column by Liz Smith of the New York Daily News.

“Our policy is not to intrude into the private lives of people,” he says. “Our interest was not in spreading rumors but in airing those aspects of a debate that is growing and important and significant.”

USA Today Editor in Chief Peter Prichard, whose newspaper appears to be the first mainstream publication to disclose the information on Forbes’ reported sex life, says his paper has no overall policy on outing.

“That’s the kind of story you have to judge on a case-by-case basis,” Prichard says. “I thought it was newsworthy because there were books coming out that dealt with the topic, and there are certainly few people in America who led a more public life than Malcolm Forbes.

“Here was something that was new, that he had kept private, but that other organizations and publications within the gay community thought that he should have gone public with. They were going to make that an issue in OutWeek and saw this as an emerging issue in the ‘90s. We talked about it and thought it was newsworthy.”

As difficult as such decisions concerning ethics and newsworthiness may be, equally challenging are the public relations issues that outing raises for the gay community, in the view of Hunter Madsen, who, with Marshall Kirk, co-authored “After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ‘90s.”

Madsen and Kirk have recommended that gays adopt a program of tact, self-restraint and empathy for the fears and concerns of straight people. Outing, says Madsen, is the opposite strategy: “a form of psychological terrorism that looks ugly both to gays and to straights.”

“Coming out is the major trauma in every gay person’s life,” explains the author, a San Francisco-based advertising executive who is openly gay. “To raise the specter of a witch hunt by your own community only makes that process more difficult. Blackmail has long been used by straights against gays to get what they want. It’s not surprising that blackmail should occur as a technique among the most radical gays.

“I cannot support a society which routinely resorts to blackmail of its citizens to get what it wants, whether that society is the United States or the gay community within it. It takes a certain coldness, a certain hardness of heart about the personal trauma of coming out to insist that others do it or else.”

“A lot of people are desperate,” replies OutWeek’s Signorile. “When your best friends are dying all around you and you turn to actor B and he’s doing nothing about it, but he’s making millions of dollars, you get very resentful. This is going to be the debate of the ‘90s in the gay community. Everybody thought that the issue of domestic partnership versus marriage was going to be the big debate. But this is the debate.” For now. While proponents and opponents of outing expect the phenomenon to intensify for a while, they also see the tactic eventually becoming unnecessary.

“The closet is now an archaic relic of the past and it’s existing on its own momentum,” reflects OutWeek editor Rotello. “Someone’s just going to have to break that logjam. Once it breaks, gays and lesbians will come flying out of the closet and people will see that they’re everywhere.”

Madsen figures that outing will be “rendered irrelevant, unnecessary within the decade” because large numbers of gays are now coming out.

“Very soon, a level of legitimacy will be gained,” he enthuses. “It doesn’t take much. It only takes the sense that gays are coming out everywhere for those sitting on the fence to reason that perhaps the risks are not so great after all.”

Times Staff Writer Victor Zonana contributed to this story.