PERSPECTIVES ON HOMOSEXUALITY : The Nasty Business of ‘Outing’ : Whether it’s done in the ranks by Pentagon policy or, as now, to a Pentagon official, it’s a dirty, hurtful business.
The practice of “outing” went big time this week with the publication of a story in a national gay newsmagazine reporting that a senior Pentagon official is gay.
Partisans on both sides of the outing debate are claiming the moral high ground as the inevitable rush of news stories surrounding the revelation begins. The Pentagon, led by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, has huffily insisted that private lives should be just that: private. The “outers,” meanwhile, claim to be exposing the highest levels of hypocrisy at the highest levels of government.
What is clear from both sides of this debate is that there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around.
The Advocate, the gay newsmagazine, went for the brass ring this week with the splashy cover story on a senior Pentagon official who is gay. The magazine said it was announcing his homosexuality because the Defense Department routinely “outs” gays in uniform in its relentless policy of discharging them from the military.
Though the story garnered little pre-publication attention, it did generate tough questions for Cheney when he made the rounds of talk shows last week. Cheney called the military’s ban on gays a policy that he “inherited” and made only half-hearted attempts to defend it. He breezily dismissed as “an old chestnut,” the Pentagon’s assertion that gays are a security risk, long a cornerstone of the military’s anti-gay regulations.
As for the senior Pentagon official, Cheney said that he would “absolutely not” seek his resignation, saying that he believed civilian Pentagon employees should be judged by how they did their jobs, not by their private lives.
It is to Cheney’s credit that he is not posturing in staunch support of the military’s anti-gay policies, which few intelligent residents of the late 20th Century truly believe are merited. Still, the secretary’s response to the outing of the senior official has revealed an awesome institutional hypocrisy. He has said, in effect, that while he believes homosexuality should be no barrier to serving in the most privileged echelons of the Defense Department, he still backs the ban on allowing gays to serve as lowly boatswain’s mates and staff sergeants.
To hundreds of thousands of lesbians and gay men in uniform, the contradiction is nothing short of cruel. Keep in mind that when gay soldiers are discovered, they are not politely shown the door with the courteous suggestion that they seek employment elsewhere. They are subjected to harsh interrogations and intense harassment.
Gay soldiers are routinely told that they will be sent to prison if they don’t give investigators lists of other gays, and the military sends enough gays to Ft. Leavenworth to make such threats credible.
Some gay activists exculpate any tactic that calls attention to such inarguable injustices. If the past week is any indication, they have succeeded. After all, before this Pentagon outing, no national reporter found the issue important enough to ask the questions that have resulted in some very serious backpedaling on Cheney’s policies.
Before gloating, however, the outers would do well to consider their own intellectual inconsistencies. The two levels of social change that the gay movement seeks are in conflict.
On the legal and political level, gays characterize their cause as a privacy-rights movement. Whom people bed with in private, they argue, should not be allowed to justify discrimination. Virtually every legal argument for gay rights presented to federal courts has been predicated on expanding the constitutional right to privacy.
The more fundamental aim of the lesbian and gay movement, however, is to eradicate prejudice, not just discrimination. It has long been an article of faith that such bias will best be eliminated not by people being private about being gay, but by them telling the world. If all gays were open about it, activists argue, prejudice would wither, because the public would learn of all the people they admire who are gay. People like a much-respected senior official for the Pentagon, for example.
All of this makes outing irresistible and problematical as a gay political tactic. Some gay leaders will always be drawn to outing because they believe that public acknowledgment is morally something that people should do anyway. It’s bizarre, however, for a minority fighting the moral judgments of fundamentalist preachers to set itself up in the business of compelling others to submit to their moral judgments.
Moreover, it’s doubly hypocritical to seek the right to privacy in courts and then wantonly violate others’ rights to privacy in the gay press.
There’s also the question of what kind of gay community people will be coming out to. No matter how high-sounding the rhetoric, outing makes some of the most august gay journalists and leaders look like a lot of bitchy queens on the set of “Boys in the Band,” bent not on helping each other but on clawing each other. It’s not a pretty sight.
This gets to the nastiness of outing. Whether outing is done to Army privates by Pentagon policy or to prominent officials by the gay press, it’s still a dirty business that hurts people. Like the song said back in the ‘60s, nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.