Monday, April 11, 2005

Is he or isn't he?

The question of "outing" anti-gay politicians or staffers divides community

By Steve Charing

Once again the debate involving the outing of suspected gay politicians whose policies and actions appear harmful to the lgbt community is upon us. Since the early 1980s the tactic of outing has been employed by gay activists and has achieved varying degrees of success.

Some targets have come out of the closet and admitted their homosexuality (Rep. Robert Baumann [R-MD]). Some have vehemently denied it and/or attacked back (Mark Foley [R-FL]). Some have remained silent (Rep. David Dreier [R-CA] and Sen. Barbara Mikulski [D-MD]). And others have resigned from their posts, most recently Rep. Ed Schrock (R-VA).

Simply put, if an elected official (or a staff member to an official) has advocated policies that would negatively affect gays and that person is suspected of being gay, activists attempt to discredit the individual by outing him or her. The goal is to create damage by exposing the individual as a hypocrite. This process usually involves prying into the personal lives of the target individuals. It may include questioning known associates, friends or other contacts; observations of the individual attending a gay event or venue like a gay club; gleaning from loosely tossed around information over the Internet or other sources.

The latest flap surrounds the newly anointed chairman of the Republican National Committee, Baltimore native Ken Mehlman. As you probably know, Mehlman was a chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign prior to his being the leader of the RNC. Al Hunt of CNN characterized Mehlman’s importance to Bush by saying, "If Karl Rove was the architect of that impressive reelection campaign, then Ken Mehlman was the general contractor."

There is a large segment of the lbgt community who would love nothing more than to drag out of the closet one of the leading operatives of an administration who successfully used the wedge issue of "gay marriage" to win votes especially in closely contested battleground states like Ohio. The administration is also reviled for supporting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that forever bans same-sex marriage. And now, as head of the RNC, Mehlman leads and represents a Party that officially considers same-sex marriage, and by extension gays, to be a threat to society.

Ken Mehlman, a 38 year-old bachelor, has been rumored to be gay for about a year. Word of this suspicion has been spreading around the Net mainly through blogs, and as far as I can determine, there is no solid evidence—no smoking gun—to support the rumors. Yet they persist.
Mehlman, himself, fanned the flames concerning his rumored sexual orientation by dodging the basic question, "Are you gay?" According to the Gay People’s Chronicle, a northern Ohio lgbt newspaper, he responded to that very question by a reporter following a speech in Akron, OH on March 19 by saying, "[You] have asked a question people shouldn’t have to answer." Shockingly, Mehlman, if he was indeed heterosexual, did not affirm that. Straight men aren’t likely to eschew proclaiming their heterosexuality.

His silence was deafening, but the blogs got very noisy.

Because of Ken Mehlman’s leadership role in the Bush campaign and his prominence in the Party, he has indeed become target number one among militant gay activists. Activist-blogger John Arovosis says Mehlman should be outed if he is gay because "Mehlman has already said publicly that the gay issue is fair game for politics. If it is fair game, then the same rules apply to him."

"The GOP has made it perfectly clear that gays and lesbians and their relationships are a threat to the fabric of American society," wrote Arovosis. "As American citizens and voters, we have the right to know if Ken Mehlman’s so-far-undisclosed relationships are posing such a threat or not."

And those suspected of inhibiting the outing of Mehlman are also under the gun. Chris Crain, the editorial director of the Washington Blade, was accused by several bloggers of "spiking" a story that Blade reporters had prepared which would have outed Mehlman. Critics cited Crain’s previous friendship with Mehlman (they both attended Harvard Law School and were colleagues on the conservative Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy) as the principal reason he prevented the release of the story.

But in an editorial responding to the attacks, Crain wrote, "On the subject of sexual orientation, we cannot report that Ken Mehlman is gay unless he says so himself. Absent that proof, the press can and should ask him ‘the question’ and print his response." He denied any knowledge of Mehlman’s sexual orientation, and as a journalist, there was no verifiable, credible information to justify publishing a news item depicting Mehlman as gay.

Nonetheless, Chris Crain is not averse to publishing such information under certain conditions. He explained to Baltimore OUTloud, "I think it is justified to report public information about someone’s sexual orientation that suggests they’re gay, even if they claim to be straight or won’t answer the question, if they are in a position to influence public policy and appear to be doing so in a way that is harmful to gays. The question of hypocrisy is what makes this information newsworthy."

Public information, according to Crain, would include, "showing up at gay bars and parties, appearing in public with a date of the same gender; telling others that they are gay, etc."
As for Ken Mehlman specifically, Crain says, "His refusal to answer the question is very powerful evidence for readers to consider, since no heterosexual in memory has similarly refused to answer the question, especially one whose party considers heterosexual
marriage and ‘traditional values’ to be bedrock principles."

Some leading lgbt organizations and many individuals are opposed to outing closeted individuals regardless of their record or policies towards gays. For example, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lgbt group, is against outing. "We don’t think that sexual orientation or gender identity should be used as a weapon," HRC spokesman Jay Smith Brown told OUTloud. "We judge politicians on how they vote."

Opponents of outing offer the invasion of privacy and the cynical use of existing homophobia as reasons to rebuke such tactics. "Whatever closeted elected officials' excuse, outing is a Pyrrhic tactic," says writer Stentor Danielson. "It gains its effectiveness from the harsh attitudes many in our society hold toward homosexuality. By outing politicians, gay rights activists are using homophobia for their own ends. Nobody deserves politically-motivated prying into their personal life, and nobody deserves to feel the wrath of homophobes."

Equality Maryland, the state’s principal lgbt civil rights organization, had just completed a successful effort during this year’s General Assembly session. It, too, does not endorse outing of politicians or staffers. "Equality Maryland is focused on achieving social change and legislative gains without bringing legislators' sexual orientation into the dialogue," said the organization’s executive director Dan Furmansky. "We feel our efforts are best served by changing people's hearts and minds about our right to equality."

In the long run, that seems to be the best strategy. While the threat and fear of outing may provide gratification and revenge to some, it cannot be relied upon to influence the overwhelming majority of government officials and voters who happen to be straight. Worse, it could cause a backlash instead.

Let’s hear what you think.