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Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Outrage: closeted gay politicians, Elizabeth Birch, and queer challenges to the status quo

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | May 06, 2009 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Andrew Sullivan, Charlie Crist, CNN, Coors, Ed Koch, Elizabeth Birch, Human Rights Campaign, Jim McGreevey, Kevin Naff, Kirby Dick, Larry Craig, Larry Kramer, log cabin Republicans, Mary Cheney, Michelangelo Signorile, outing, outrage, Patrick Guerriero, Washington Blade

Earlier tonight I went to a preview screening of the movie Outrage, "a searing exposé of the secret lives of closeted gay politicians." More than an exposé of those secret lives, the movie serves to focus on hypocrisy of closeted politicians who dedicate themselves to perfecting their right-wing voting records. There are definitely many striking moments in the movie, starting with the recording of Larry Craig at the very beginning, declaring to the cops, "I don't seek activity in bathrooms," and then a later press conference called by Craig where you can hear someone yelling "come on Larry be gay," followed by someone who went home with Craig from a DC strip club a while back quoting Craig as handing him a $20 bill and saying, "just remember I can buy and sell your ass 1000 times."

Of course, Larry Craig has already been thrown off his, um... throne, and the same could be said of many of the other politicians "exposed" in the movie - from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch to key officials in the Reagan administration. In other words, no new names are necessarily named, with the possible exception of current Florida Governor Charlie Crist, whose gay exploits have been covered in alternative media sources but never in something with this much potential audience.

What struck me more than the analysis of the hypocrisy of elected officials, closeted or otherwise, was the never ending parade of gay establishment figures, from right to center but never further left than gay radio host Michelangelo Signorile, a dubious figure at best (although responsible for much of the media attention around outing closeted gay celebrities in the early '90s, he was also one of the people to spearhead vitriolic attacks on public sex venues -- and the gay men who frequented them -- in New York in the mid-'90s).

Other than BlogActive's Michael Rogers (current specialist in outing closeted politicians), we're treated to an endless array of gay elite figureheads including former director of HRC Elizabeth Birch, gay conservative standard bearer Andrew Sullivan, at least two prominent Log Cabin Republicans, Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff, as well as a few resuscitated figures like Larry Kramer, still proclaiming that gay people "have no rights" in spite of the considerable rights he's always had, and a more engaged Rodger McFarlane, former head of the Gill Foundation.

While many of these gay establishment individuals are quite capable of talking about Republican homophobia, their analysis doesn't go much further. Elizabeth Birch excoriates Mary Cheney for her role in (successfully) target-marketing the famously right-wing Coors to gay and lesbian consumers, but there's no one on screen to shred Elizabeth Birch for her glamorous role in shepherding the gaysbian agenda as far to the right as possible. Instead, we get another shot of Birch telling us that members of Congress have literally cried in her arms because they feel like they can't come out. How sweet of her to hold them (and their secrets)!

During the Q&A, director Kirby Dick talked about how he was exposing the culture war that right-wing Republicans are fomenting. I said: "You do a good job of exposing that culture war, but I believe there's another culture war going on inside gay and queer cultures, between a narrow agenda of marriage and military inclusion, and a broader abolitionist agenda of sexual liberation and universal access to basic needs like housing and healthcare, and in the movie it seems that pretty much every gay person falls more or less to the right or center of this divide, and I wonder if your focus on these establishment figures also indicates a stance in this culture war."

Dick responded that no, this didn't indicate his position, but rather it was a strategic choice not to go too far to the left so as not to be dismissed. In this sense, Dick has already been successful -- he was featured in a 12 minute CNN story, and will soon be on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, both media opportunities that he would probably not have been granted if the movie centered less around outed former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey telling us about his revelation that "this is who God made me," or former president of the Log Cabin Republicans Patrick Guerriero revealing that "the closet suffocates the integrity of decent people." Of course, we know that Elizabeth Birch and Patrick Guerriero (or Jim McGreevey) are not interested in creating space for a diversity of queer challenges to the status quo, but it feels hypocritical to avoid voicing broader critiques in a movie supposedly centered around accountability.

(Mattilda also blogs at nobodypasses.blogspot.com)

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I think that Mattilda should read Larry Kramer's recent address at Yale. He said that he is insulted to be referred to as "queer", called it adolescent, and said that no one in their right mind who reads the dictionary definition would want to willingly assume that label, after all the other oppressions that gays and lesbians face in life. I think that I agree with him.

I looked up "queer" in the dictionary like you suggested:

queer: strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different; singular
Speaking as someone who is in fact strange and odd from a conventional viewpoint, I do actually want to assume that label. I think your comment illustrates the point that Mattilda makes in that the voices of everyone who doesn't support the narrow agenda of assimilation are silenced, and they're silenced in part by rhetoric like yours.

Mattilda didn't refer to Kramer as queer; she referred to him as a gay elite figuredhead. "Gay" is his word of choice, no?

It's amusing to hear HRC leadership types (white, gay, and wealthy) talk about politicians and what they do in the closet. I could eat the irony with s shovel, considering how they are the same folks that live in and support heteronormative culture ("we're just like you"). They'll complain about closeted politicians while they construct the closets with the work they do.

This isn't really that sticky of a subject. I support outing all hypocritical politicians.

The points that Mattilda makes about the culture war within gay and queer cultures are right on. I for one would be delighted to see someone other than the usual white, middle-to-upper class, able-bodied, non-trans, "straight-acting" gay men (oh, and a few lesbians...for "diversity") speaking for non-straight people, but in these days when "gay rights" really means "the right to assimilate into the system", it comes as no surprise that these are the only voices heard in both the mainstream media and our own media. I know the term "special rights" is being tossed around a lot by our opponents in the struggle for recognition of gay and queer rights, but until the whole community is represented in the debate, that's just what we'll be getting: special rights for a small segment of us at the expense of everyone else.

Outing people is still wrong. Its like exposing someones medical history or social security number.

...Although, if they are having sex in public...

Normally, I would agree with you...but the closeted politicians who take up the mantle to take our rights away from us while they do the nasty on the side must be outed.

IMHO, Marti hits it right on the money here. For HRC and the rest of the Queer elites to endorse outing is the very height of hypocrisy given how much effort they've put into building and strengthening the very same closets they complain about so bitterly.

And Signorile "dubious"? You mean the "LGBT" radio host who severely limits the number of transfolks who can call into his show? Gee, I'da never thunk it. Hypocrisy is something he obviously has no problem with, as long as it's his own.

Megan and Aviva, you are on with your readings!!!

And Marti, EXACTLY!!!

And Megan, "until the whole community is represented in the debate, that's just what we'll be getting: special rights for a small segment of us at the expense of everyone else." On fire!

And A, I think I've lost you on the connection between outing and exposing someone's medical history or social security number -- is it like credit fraud?

And Rebecca, "For HRC and the rest of the Queer elites to endorse outing is the very height of hypocrisy given how much effort they've put into building and strengthening the very same closets they complain about so bitterly." Bring it on!

And yes, I was trying to be kind by suggesting that Signorile was dubious...

In my community organizing studies I learned that there is a point where the often the accepted representatives of a community are in this position because they are accepted by the halls of power as the representatives. Then those people start to become the representatives to the community for the halls of power. It is a subtle shift but we have seen it time and again.

Rob, true enough -- although I would say it even goes further, and these people aren't even representatives anymore -- except, of course, representing their own interests, which I guess is a certain kind of representation...