I Asked Him Straight Out
Barney Frank, Jim McGreevey, David Catania, Larry Kramer, Michelangelo Signorile, Andrew Sullivan, Elizabeth Birch, Becky Altringer, Hilary Rosen, Tammy Baldwin
Regular airtime: Monday, 9pm ET
US: 5 Oct 2009
It could just be a fantasy. There is something wonderfully twisted about the idea of Karl Rove being gay.
—Kirby Dick, Movieline, 23 April 2009
“This town is full of gay people,” says David Catania, at-large member of the DC City Council. Indeed, seconds Michael Rogers, self-designated outer and founder of BlogActive.com, the business of politics is much like a Broadway show.
The trouble is, much of that the show is fearful and small-minded. Too many politicians are afraid to be out. And the closet, according to Outrage, is “profoundly unhealthy,” according to Jim McGreevey, not only for those caught inside it, but also for the culture that constructs and sustains it. “To thine own self be true,” quotes McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor whose self-declaration in 2004 (“And so, my truth is that I am a gay American”) led to the loss of his job, a sensational divorce case, and at long last, he says here, a sense of peace and self-confidence. He describes his closeting as “like being in a bad Star Trek episode,” where he was left wondering “which foot was in which universe at any given time.” Like Rogers says, a Broadway show.
In Outrage, premiering tonight on HBO and airing throughout October, the processes of closeting and outing constitute an ongoing series of performances, with the roles of victims and villains shifting. As representatives of government and media trade accusations and assumptions, they also collude in maintaining an underlying dread with spurts of hysteria. One such moment serves as the movie’s primary touchstone, the outing of Idaho’s Senator Larry Craig. His much-mocked statement for the press—“Let me be clear: I am not gay. I never have been gay”—is replayed here as a kind of refrain, an emblem of the many ways that queers deny their desires and identities in order to stay in office. If, as Outrage submits, the primary damage done by homophobia in U.S. politics is the overwhelming tendency of closeted officials to vote against gay rights legislation, any number of lesser injuries are also inflicted, in repressive and sometimes frantic responses to rumors. “Living in the closet makes you do crazy things,” observes Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade. Like, for instance, soliciting sex in an airport bathroom in Minneapolis.
No matter whether Craig identifies as gay, sees his sexual liaisons with men as separate from his identity, or lies to his wife. Even as he provides Outrage with a modicum of comedy, Craig is also something of a poster boy for the public contortions practiced by closeted politicians. He’s certainly not the only such emblem, as Outrage also considers the cases of Ken Mehlman, Ed Koch, and Charlie Crist, all still insisting on their straightness. They can do this, submits the documentary, because media go along—sustaining an atmosphere of gossip, self-hate, cover-ups, and revenge that distorts lives and ruin careers. (In fact, the film’s theatrical opening generated still another round of controversy, when NPR edited politicians’ names out of Nathan Lee’s review.)
The irony is that the “Broadway show” is simultaneously evident and secret. Most often, it has to do with men. The movie includes interviews with lesbian politicians and media reps (former director of the Human Rights Campaign Elizabeth Birch, Wisconsin congressperson Tammy Baldwin, and CNN contributor Hilary Rosen, who criticizes Mary Cheney working as gay and lesbian liaison for Coors Beer, while the Coors family remained openly homophobic), but they are not among those whom Outrage accuses of actively seeking to keep their queerness secret. The film doesn’t take up why this might be so—how lesbians and gay men are treated differently in politics or in media, and neither does it address the overwhelming whiteness of its interviewees or targets: the film includes an interview with the Washington Post‘s Jose Antonio Vargas, whose reporting on video games and HIV/AIDS suggests that he keeps his feet in multiple universes.
The difficulty of maintaining such balance while closeted comes up repeatedly. “It’s kind of hard to be public and closeted,” quips Barney Frank. This even though the film shows repeatedly that this is exactly how best to describe secretly gay politicians. Pointing out the hypocrisies and bad policies engendered by homophobia (say, the U.S. military’s retarded “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy), the film enlists Rogers as a kind of crusading point man. “I am going to tell people,” he asserts, “who these horrible traitors are.” While Rogers outs public figures like Calvin Klein, Shepard Smith, and Malcolm Forbes, he is especially focused on those closeted individuals who take homophobic positions on legislation and policy. As Chairman of the Republican Party, Mehlman, for instance, campaigned against gay marriage, and when Bill Maher named him on Larry King, CNN deleted that portion of his interview for broadcast.
“Journalists are in the business of reporting the truth,” says Michelangelo Signorile. And so he resents those who collude in lies for the sake of continued access or seeming propriety. During the Republican National Convention last year, Signorile recalls, he invited Charlie Crist on his Sirius radio show, where “I asked him straight out” whether he was gay. Crist’s response to this question has been more or less consistent (essentially, “I’m not going to talk about this issue”), though he has worked hard to look straight, dating models and even becoming engaged when he was plainly hoping to be selected as John McCain’s running mate in 2008. The documentary follows this story in some detail, including an interview with one of Crist’s female exes, Kelly Heyniger, who follows up her TV ad (“He’s real, he wants to make a difference” with this tidbit for Dick’s crew: “I think I should just keep my mouth shut. Call me in 10 years and I’ll tell you a story.”
Dick’s film argues that it’s long past time that the many stories that shape closeted politicians’ lives and careers be sorted out.