COLUMN LEFT : False Fronts Can’t Always Be Left Standing : ‘Outing’ smacks of repression, but there is a test for rightness.

Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications.

I didn’t much care for the theory and practice of “outing” when gay journalists first began identifying homosexuals in public life. This brusque wrenching open of the closet door, albeit conducted by gay persons fired with high moral purpose, seemed kindred to similar door-wrenching conducted by all the usual swine, fired with the desire to invade individual privacy and make their victims writhe.

Over the past couple of weeks the issue has gone critical, with the outing of an assistant secretary of defense by Michelangelo Signorile, a gay journalist who is the Stormin’ Norman of the outing crowd. A few months ago, gay men in Washington called Signorile to say that this particular official was promulgating the propaganda of a Defense Department that persecutes gay people, while on the other hand he was well known around town as gay. Eventually the Advocate, a gay paper based in Los Angeles, published Signorile’s expose.

Feeling uneasy about outing in any form, I called up John Scagliotti, maker of a famous documentary called “Before Stonewall” and a gay person who favors outing. He made a reasonably persuasive case.


What he didn’t care for, Scagliotti said, were the anti-outers who fostered the concept that homosexuality is something to be ashamed of, like those newspapers that would not print Jack Anderson’s column reporting the Advocate’s story. To invoke the concept of privacy missed the point that oppression of gay people is a social and political condition and hence has to be attacked at the social and political level.

The test for outing, Scagliotti said, should be: “Has the person benefited from being in the closet in careerist terms, in the sense of actively pretending to be something they are not? There’s a difference between a passive closet in which the person simply survives and hopes for the best and the active closet, which involves putting on a heterosexual mask and promoting yourself as such, which is in ethical contradiction to your true life. You’ve made the choice. You’re living an actual lie, bringing girls to the company ball and so on. A gay actor who has made the decision to advance his career by pretending to be heterosexual is insulting and oppressing all those who are already out. No one wants to out little people, gay teachers and so on--unless gay teachers are publicly anti-gay--but I would out people who are gay and yet are promoting heterosexuality.”

Meanwhile the mainstream press has been resolutely “inning” the Pentagon official, attending but not reporting press conferences held by gay outers, writing and then killing stories about the whole affair. There is something bizarre about the hyenas virtuously strapping on their muzzles, but it’s not so surprising. The mainstream press thrives on exposes contrived on its terms and not those set by people like Signorile.

As always, the British press has demonstrated this truism with appalling clarity. At the end of July, a group in London calling itself “Faggots Rooting Out Closet Sexuality” (FROCS) announced that it was going to plaster the town with posters of prominent politicians, judges, cops and even a royal person, each adorned with the words queer, dyke, homo and the like. The British tabloid press rushed for the high ground, bellowing with outrage against the proposed outing. Jean Rook, a columnist for the Daily Express, called the members of FROCS a bunch of “mincing militants.” The Daily Mail and The Sun were similarly abusive, while invoking their own respect for privacy. Yet both the Mail and the Sun have in recent years laid charges--freighted with outrage--about the gayness of public persons.

Came the hour of the promised grand outing and the hacks mustered at a FROCS press conference, notebooks akimbo. At this point FROCS said the whole thing was a hoax designed to expose Britain’s “hysterical, homophobic media.” Maybe so, maybe not. FROCS may simply have been panicked by the uproar, but the point about the media was still well taken.

J. Edgar Hoover used the gossip columnist Walter Winchell to “out” Commies. Gossip usually has a twin function of being liberating--letting the sunshine in--and repressive, in the sense of outing the personal and the private and thus hurting people. Gossip represents the visible fault lines at the social surface, reflecting subterranean, gradual shifts in our social attitudes.


Outing, which itself is changing from a kind of anarchic dada to something more responsible, has had its effect already. The outed official’s boss, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, has been compelled to make statements distancing himself from traditional Pentagon policy toward gays that he certainly would not have made before Signorile. But this does not mean that the repressive aspect of the practice could not easily become dominant, as many in straight circles would dearly desire.