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Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are - Whether You Want to or Not

Ellen Degeneres almost comes out to Oprah Winfrey in an episode of Ellen

The decision to come out is a personal one, except when your words and actions forfeit your right to a closeted life.

"If you believe that homosexuality is a personal choice, then you have not tried very hard to see this issue from a gay or lesbian person's point of view."

-- Representative Ed Fallon

An acquaintance of my partner recounted the story of a late-night rendezvous he had with a man he met online. After playing a round of internet indecency, he arranged to drive to the man's house, park in the alley behind his house, enter the garage, orally service the guy, and leave. His new internet friend explained that he would have invited our acquaintance into the house for their quickie, but his wife and kids were inside, asleep.

Upon hearing this story, I had one thought: what an idiot. Hasn't he ever heard of Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, or Dean Corll? Beyond the element of personal danger, though, I wondered if this guy had no respect for the kids and the little Mrs. inside the house. Suppose Junior got up for a drink of water and noticed the garage light on, or Mrs. Internet woke up and went looking for her missing husband?

Idaho Senator Larry Craig

This brings me to Larry Craig, the Idaho senator who pleaded guilty to soliciting sex in a public restroom from a police officer. What an idiot. Granted, Craig's choice of a public place removed much of the psycho-sadist serial killer threat from the act, but it increased the chances that he was going to be caught with his pants down, literally. And people generally don't look favorably on a politician who doesn't have the common sense to not engage in under-the-stall-wall interludes with total strangers.

In all fairness, Craig is hardly alone in his alleged desire to have anonymous sex. Both straight and gay people have been engaging in it as long as there has been sex. Nor is the thrill of having sex in a public place anything new. So why is it that Craig has become anathema and seen his lengthy political career come to a screeching halt?

It's the lying and hypocrisy. In defending his vote to remove Bill Clinton from office, Craig said, "I would submit that if a generation of young people are taught by our actions in this case that a lie carries no consequences, then the nation is at risk." ("Sen. Larry Craig's statement from President Clinton's impeachment trial" (The Idaho Statesman, 28 August 2007) Yet, Craig is, by his own words, a liar. He either lied under oath when he pled guilty, or he lied when he denied that he was guilty. Consequences: you can't have it both ways.

Nevertheless, the media has focused its attention on the most salacious aspect of the story, the reported come-on in an airport men's room. This act has had journalists salivating at the prospect of outing a closeted congressman. Thus, the larger question for the GLBT community is whether this outing is justified. Is it fair to reveal the private sexual preferences of public personas, or are one's sexual proclivities one's own business, regardless of who that person may be?

For many, the question has a simple answer; one could easily find members of both the gay and straight community who would support each position -- "Out them!", "It's none of our business!" However, the issue is far more complex than this dogmatic approach would indicate. Again, the determining factors are lying and hypocrisy. What makes the cases of Craig, Ted Haggard, and Mark Foley, among others, so intriguing for the public are the stark differences between the public personas they present and the supposed secret lives they lead.

Let's start with Craig. Going back as far as 1996, Craig has consistently gotten a zero rating from the Human Rights Campaign, meaning that he voted against every piece of legislation that the gay rights organization supported. (All HRC ratings cited in this piece are from the HRC website) He has twice voted in favor of amending the Constitution to define marriage as being between a man and woman only. He has said repeatedly that he supports the idea of civil unions, but that marriage is a holy institution that shouldn't be defiled with same-sex marriages. His own holy union has lasted for 24 years.

Coming out can impact an individual's relationships with friends, parents, and other loved ones, affect one's ability to find or keep work, interfere with the quality of medical care received, subject one to harassment and hate crimes, and limit a person's ability to find housing, and that's the short list of things someone must deal with after coming out. The decision to come out is life-altering, whether you're famous or not.

Nevertheless, rumors have persisted that Mrs. Craig was no more than a beard (a term used to describe the wife of a gay man who has married only to hide his homosexuality). Only the Craigs know the true nature of their relationship, but such rumors undoubtedly stem from the repeated allegations of homosexual conduct on the part of Larry Craig. According to the Idaho Statesman, such allegations date back to Craig's days in college. Several men have reported gay alliances or come-ons involving Craig.

Eyebrows were initially raised when Craig insisted his innocence in the sex scandals involving male congressional pages in the early '80s. What struck many as odd about Craig's statements about the scandal was that no one had ever implicated him as a participant. Why deny something of which you haven't been accused? Still, Craig has steadfastly denied any impropriety, telling the Statesman, "I don't do that kind of thing. I am not gay, and I never have been." ("Men's Room Arrest Reopens Questions about Sen. Larry Craig", 28 August 2007)

Ted Haggard

The scandals involving Haggard and Foley are well known. Ironically, before losing his position as an evangelical leader, Haggard warned his children in his book Letters from Home that "Everything in your life is public. There are no secrets. Everything you say, everything you do, everyplace you go, every thought you think is going to be known by all… One lie, one drink, one rendezvous, one pill, one joint, one look, one time. Yeah! Sure! Really? I don't think so." ("Ted Haggard's Letters from Home", 3 November 2006, People In The Sun.com) Equally ironic was Foley's penchant for lewd online chats with underage teens, which was a sharp contrast to his work as Chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.

Far less known are Ed Schrock and David Drier. Representative Schrock (R - VA) ended his reelection campaign after tapes of him chatting on a gay sex phone service were made public. Representative Drier has been accused of being a closeted gay man for much of his time in office, most often in terms of his relationship with his chief of staff and "roommate" Brad Smith. Schrock received a zero rating from HRC for support of gay issues, while Drier's rating rose from a 17 in the 107th Congress to 38 in the 109th.

If, in fact, these rumors have been floating around for years, why don't most of us know about them (and one could easily throw former governor James McGreevy into the mix)? Why does it take a scandal for them to make front page news? Ideally, it would be because a politician's personal life shouldn't be headline news unless it affects the quality of his or her professional life. As Republican consultant Rick Wilson told The New York Times, "In a lot of cases it’s because the principals involved are powerful, and a lot of the people who know are aides or staff or lobbyists or even reporters who rely on these people for access. So you end up with this feeling of, ‘It’s just business, it’s not affecting their work.’ Once it starts affecting their work, then the rules change.” ("Oh, Everyone Knows That (Except You)", by Abby Goodnough, New York Times, 2 September 2007,)

However, self-anointed Queen of Bitchy Celebrity Gossip Bloggers Perez Hilton disagrees with the philosophy of "it's nobody's business until it's everybody's business". It is his viewpoint that anyone who is gay should be outed immediately, and he is more than willing to do his part. Having already played a role in outing Neil Patrick Harris and Lance Bass, Hilton declares, "We've said it before and we will say it again: the closet no longer exists if you are a celebrity or a politician!...We are throwing down the gauntlet and issue a challenge to all the closeted celebrities out there...Come out in droves!...Society will no longer be able to marginalize us!" ("Perez Hilton Outs More Celebrity Gays in Media", Monsters and Critics, 4 November 2006) But Hilton's motives are undoubtedly more egotistical than activist. His blog has been popular for years, but it is only when he is able to out a celebrity that he gets play in the general media.

Mark Foley

His motives are also shortsighted. It would be wonderful if outed politicians and celebrities could go about their business with no change to their life or work. But such is not the case. Politicians such as Craig and Schrock find themselves out of a job. Actors find themselves typecast. Singers lose fans. And athletes are shunned by many of their fellow athletes.

Harris and T. R. Knight, who outed himself last year to pre-empt the media's attempts to out him, are lucky in that they both had established parts as heterosexuals in successful TV shows when their sexual preference was made public. However, once those shows end, it is impossible to know how their sexual orientation will affect their careers. They would not be the first actors to lose a part because producers feared negative public perception.

More importantly, outing someone who is not ready to go public with his or her sexuality can be traumatic, as the decision to come out is a personal one. Despite Hilton's insistence, staying in the closet is not a betrayal of the gay community. Mary Lou Rasmussen reports in Theory in Practice, "The act of not coming out may be read as an abdication of responsibility, or, the act of somebody who is disempowered or somehow ashamed of their inherent gayness…(yet) people's ability to continuously negotiate their identity is necessarily mediated by varying circulations of power relating to age, family background, economic position, and race. The dominance of coming out discourses in lesbian and gay politics belies the idea that coming out is not necessarily an option, or a desired objective, of all people who are non-heterosexual identified." ("The Problem of Coming Out", Spring 2004)

If it is indeed important to out persons to decrease marginalization of gays by society, as Hilton contends, why stop with the famous? Why not out every gay person? Because coming out can impact an individual's relationships with friends, parents, and other loved ones, affect one's ability to find or keep work, interfere with the quality of medical care received, subject one to harassment and hate crimes, and limit a person's ability to find housing, and that's the short list of things someone must deal with after coming out. The decision to come out is life-altering, whether you're famous or not.

So who should be outed? Anyone in the closet -- politicians, actors, athletes, the guy or girl next door? The Barney Frank Rule makes the most sense. Frank, the openly gay congressman from Massachusetts, has said frequently that a person should be outed when he or she uses his or her position to further anti-gay causes. Thus, the outing is not a desire to bolster the number count of the gay community, but to expose two-facedness. If a cornerstone of your campaign is to disparage the gay community while you are secretly engaging in the very behavior you criticize, you deserve to have your duplicity exposed. Under that rule, Craig, Haggard, Foley, Schrock and Drier all deserve to be outed. Harris, Bass, and Knight do not.

So, back to my partner's acquaintance. What he did was an act of stupidity and selfishness. But what the internet buddy did was worse, by placing himself in a situation that could destroy his family. For many, the first instinct may be to run to his wife and tell her of her husband's activities, to save her from future pain (an act that disregards the present pain such a revelation would make). Ultimately, though, the decision when and how to come out is his to make, regardless of the emotional turmoil that may result, as is the right of all gay, or bisexual individuals to come out in their own time and manner. Unless that individual makes it part of his or her mission to deny that right to others.

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