Politics behind naming names

“Outrage,” the biting new political documentary by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Kirby Dick that opens today in Los Angeles, candidly explores the murky intersection between private lives and public conduct.

Dick’s thesis is that Washington’s closeted homosexual lawmakers, most of them members of the GOP, staunchly -- often stridently -- oppose equal rights measures for gays because they’re anxious to conceal their own sexual orientation. He also shares a sentiment voiced by openly gay Democratic Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts who told the filmmakers that his Republican colleagues have “a right to privacy, but there’s no right to hypocrisy.”

So in that spirit, the film does what no mainstream cinematic treatment of this issue has done before: It names names.

All the law and policymakers identified have previously been “outed” in print or online, but most either deny being gay or simply decline to comment on privacy grounds. Among those named in “Outrage” are veteran California Rep. David Dreier, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, ex-Louisiana Congressman Jim McCrery, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch and ex-Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, whose notorious 2007 arrest on suspicion of lewd conduct in a Minneapolis airport men’s room effectively ended his political career.

McCrery, who now works as a lobbyist in Washington, said in an interview this week that he had heard about the film but has not seen it.

“This is not the first time I’ve had to deal with this sort of thing,” McCrery said. “It’s best for me -- and I would tell anyone else mentioned in the film -- not to comment on it.”

Does he think it’s a violation of his privacy? “I don’t think it’s right,” he said about efforts to out public officials. “I don’t think it’s something people should do. Other than that, I don’t want to comment.”

The film’s searching look within the political closet comes at a pivotal moment. With same-sex marriage court decisions and legislative bills sweeping the country from Maine to New York and from Iowa to California, the question of equal rights for gays and lesbians has surfaced once again on the national political agenda. Legal analysts predict that the California Supreme Court will uphold Prop. 8’s ban on same-sex marriage within the next few weeks, triggering a rush to qualify a marriage equality initiative for the next statewide ballot. Meanwhile, the organizers of Prop. 8’s narrow electoral victory are not only gearing up for another bitter and expensive fight in California, but also offering their expertise to backers of traditional marriage who hope to overturn their own court decisions or newly enacted laws on marriage equality.

Though “Outrage” will initially be seen in limited release in selected cities, it’s expected to attract influential audiences in important political organizing and fundraising centers such as Los Angeles, Washington and New York.

Dick actually became interested in the issue several years ago while in Washington, D.C., to promote his last documentary, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” an expose of the motion picture rating system. He suddenly became aware, he said, of Capitol Hill’s large gay population.

“At the time, I was just curious and I started talking to people about it,” recalled Dick, who is heterosexual. “That’s when the next step came, the revelation that there are actually closeted politicians who are voting anti-gay. I said, ‘OK, this is a very fascinating subject.’ ”

It’s also one that coincides with his own politics. “Gay rights is the most important human rights issue in the country at this point,” explained the bookishly handsome 56-year-old during a recent interview in his Silver Lake home. “I think we are all harmed by the fact that gays and lesbians don’t have full human rights.”

Dick, whose 2004 exploration of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church -- “Twist of Faith” -- earned him an Oscar nomination, chose not to directly confront any of the allegedly closeted politicians identified in his new film, relying instead on archival footage for the responses provided. “For the most part they have been asked those questions [by others],” he says, “and they answered them in the film much more than they would ever speak to us.”

He does, however, present such well-known gay commentators as blogger Michael Rogers, playwright Larry Kramer and satellite radio host Michelangelo Signorile, as well as openly gay current and former office-holders, including Rep. Tammy Baldwin, former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey and ex-Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe. “They were all so articulate,” Dick said. “These are people, regardless of whether they’re Republican or Democrat, who have all really thought about these issues, who have all been very affected by them personally.”

To help fund the film, Dick turned in part to Democratic political consultant Chad Griffin, whose clients include Rob Reiner and Steve Bing. Griffin, a gay activist, saw it as an important opportunity.

“I think it’s going to have a tremendous impact in the movement for equality,” Griffin said.

Under Dick’s direction, McGreevey and Kolbe discuss candidly their struggle to disclose their homosexuality.

Kolbe recalled a powerful conversation he had with Sen. John McCain in which Kolbe, a Republican, announced that he was gay. McCain told him that he already knew. “He said, ‘it doesn’t make any difference. You are a good legislator and you’re always going to be my friend.’

“I couldn’t wait to pick up the phone and make the next call,” Kolbe says in the movie.

Coming out was the most “lifting experience I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’ve had this incredible sense of peace and calm come over me. I literally felt 40 years lifting off my shoulders.”

By coincidence, Dick says, “I started the film two months before [former Republican Congressman Mark] Foley came out and a year before Larry Craig was arrested. Even though there’s no real breakthrough in terms of ‘news’ in the film, there’s still something very, very revelatory about it all.”

It is luck of timing that those revelations -- whatever audiences make of them -- are arriving in theaters at the moment when the nation is clarifying its stand on gays rights. No documentary filmmaker could ask for more.

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tina.daunt@latimes.com. Freelance writer Gary Goldstein contributed to this article.