Tuesday, August 02, 2005

When Is A Public Official's Private Life A Public Matter?

Jeff Newman is an outspoken gay activist who serves as webmaster for Indiana’s largest GLBT web site, GayIndy.org, and who publishes his views online at bilerico.com and jeffnewman.net. Like many in the gay community he recently wrote about being dejected by the General Assembly’s passage this year of a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriages and civil unions, the first in a two-step legislative process, and the defeat of an Indianapolis City-County Council resolution which would have prohibited discrimination in employment and housing on the basis of sexual orientation. Newman lamented that several state and local lawmakers who voted against the GLBT community on these critical issues are themselves closeted homosexuals. Newman also wondered aloud whether these lawmaker’s private lives should become public. He stopped short of outing any of the individuals in question, but the same question is being asked across the country and, in some instances, being acted upon.

One of the most highly publicized instances of outing involved the conservative Republican mayor of Spokane, Jim West. West, prior to his election as mayor, served for many years in the Washington legislature, rising to the top of the Republican leadership. Throughout his long political career, West was one of the most outspoken legislators in opposition to gay civil rights. The Spokane Spokesman Review conducted a three-year investigation of West’s private life which it ran on the front pages of its newspaper detailing West’s use of the mayor’s office to lure and entice young men he met on a gay.com chatroom and his alleged participation in sexually abusing young males while serving as a Boy Scout leader in the 1970s. The newspaper actually used a fictitious online participant to entrap West.

Media experts throughout the country debated the newspaper’s journalistic ethics in using this tactic to nail down its story. The paper’s editor, Steven A. Smith, defended its reporting on West, by emphasizing that it was not a “story about sexual orientation.” Smith responded to critics with the following: “This is a story about alleged sexual abuse of children and misuse of power and authority. Using the trappings of office to lure and groom young sex partners, barely of legal age, is the public’s business whether those potential partners are men or women. West is the city’s second strong mayor, a powerful political force, the face of our city whose secret life could open him to blackmail or extortion attempts and compromise his ability to do his job.”

One Washington state lawmaker wrote to New York Times ethicist, Randy Cohen, inquiring about whether it was appropriate for the media to report on the private lives of public officials as the Spokane newspaper had done. As to a public official’s sexual orientation, Cohen says it depends on whether it is germane to public policy-making. Cohen said, “[You] may ethically out an official only if that official’s being gay is germane to his policy-making.” Cohen added, “A person who seeks elected office, voluntarily entering the public arena, does surrender some claims to privacy. . . . identifying when this standard has been met is admittedly difficult.” Cohen’s guideline for when this standard has been met can be summed up as follows: "[T]he more aggressively, the more centrally, an official participates in a policy struggle, the more reasonable it is to out him."

Cohen believes there is a counter-argument in support of hypocrisy or at least its irrelevance: “[A] policy should stand on its merits, not on its advocate’s behavior.” But Cohen hastens to add, “That may be so in the dispassionate discourse of academe (at least idealized academe), but in the hurly-burly of political life, the human factor is meaningful and often invoked by politicians themselves—their military service, their religious observance.” Cohen concluded, “It is hypocrisy that more often inspires the urge to out; it is denying others the right to do what we ourselves do that provokes disdain.”

There are plenty of examples where a public official’s private live was worthy of public discussion applying Cohen’s standard. Former Democratic New Jersey Governor, Jim McGreevey, presented himself as a heterosexual man who was married with two young children. Although McGreevey’s public positions were not hostile to gays and lesbians, his sexual relationship with a male state employee was at odds with the way he portrayed himself to the people. More importantly, though, McGreevey used his political office to appoint his male lover, an Israeli national who was out of status, to an important post as the state’s homeland security director, and who later filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against McGreevey in his capacity as the state’s chief executive. Although McGreevey insisted the relationship was strictly consensual, his judgment and apparent hypocrisy were hard to overlook.

Locally, Congressman Dan Burton, a favorite of Eric Miller’s Advance America and Micah Clark’s American Family Association of Indiana, has long sold himself as a champion of family values. While it had been common knowledge around State House circles that the married father had fathered a child out-of-wedlock as the result of an illicit relationship with a State House secretary during his tenure as a state legislator, the Indiana news media shied away from reporting on Burton’s private life, which was obviously at odds with his public life. It was not until many years later as a member of Congress that the issue would surface during the height of the various investigations of former President Bill Clinton, one of which was being run by Burton. Not until Vanity Fair magazine report on the affair did Burton acknowledge he had an illegitimate son whom he had never met. Only then did local media cover Burton’s private life.

More recently, the issue surfaced again when local news media reported on an affair former State Senator Steve Johnson (R-Kokomo) had with a senate staffer. The publication of the news hit his wife, against whom he had recently instituted divorce proceedings, particularly hard. She ended her life in a violent one car accident after consuming a large quantity of alcohol. Senate President Pro Tem Robert Garton came down hard on Johnson, even seeking his expulsion from the Senate. In the end, after publicized hearings, Garton stripped Johnson of his seniority and relegated him to the back-bencher status of a freshman legislator. Johnson was defeated by the voters in the next election.

During the investigation of Johnson, many stories began circulating about other legislators who had engaged in sexual relations with legislative staffers. Attention started to focus on a handful of legislators, including legislative leaders. The Indianapolis Star, in particular, was rumored to have engaged reporters to work on the story, focusing in particular on a high-ranking legislator who still serves in the legislature. In the end, the Indianapolis Star and other news media, under intense pressure, stopped short of going to print with their stories. Had the news been reported, suffice it to say that the make-up of the Indiana legislature would be quite different than it is today.

In relation to recent public actions taken in Indiana concerning the GLBT community, Jeff Newman asks an important question: “[W]hy gay Indiana state and city lawmakers would vote to the detriment of their own community?” Newman asks, “Are they self-loathing queers who believe that they and their GLBT brothers and sisters are not deserving of anything more than second-class citizenship?” That is exactly what former President Bill Clinton thinks. Clinton said that he believed Republican political consultant, Arthur Finkelstein, was “blinded by self-loathing” after hearing that the previously closeted homosexual had married his gay male lover in a ceremony in Massachusetts recently according to the New York Times. Finkelstein has made a career out of helping elect conservative candidates to office, such as North Carolina’s former Senator Jesse Helms, who opposed gay civil rights and often engaged in gay-baiting for political advantage.

Newman, alternatively, asks whether these closeted legislators are “hypocrites whose concern for their own political asses is much greater than their concern for their community?” Newman thinks the latter is probably the right answer. So is Newman going to name these closeted public officials? Newman’s answer is “not likely.” Newman says his position “has nothing to do with any moral issue I have with outing people.” Newman continued: “I do believe that coming out is an intensely personal decision, but as far as I'm concerned, public figures who choose to be hypocrites do so at their own peril. The reason I'm not likely to name names is I just don't want the hassle. Any of these folks can vehemently deny their gayness, and how could I prove otherwise? I'm sure not going to follow these idiots around with a camera waiting for them to step out.”

But Newman has a warning to these closeted lawmakers: “[I]f I were these legislators and was planning to vote the same in round two, I would be pretty damned nervous. They are facing an increasingly angry GLBT community whose tolerance for hypocrisy is at an all-time low.” Advance Indiana echoes Newman’s comments. These closeted hypocrites had better not count on getting a free ride much longer. Journalistic standards support making their private lives public if they choose to participate in the Christian right's efforts to demonize gays and lesbians and deny fundamental rights to gays and lesbians enjoyed by all other Americans. But the warning should not be limited to closeted public officials who act hypocritically. The same standard should apply to heterosexual lawmakers who profess to "support the sanctity of marriage" by opposing gay marriages, while engaging in extra-marital affairs themselves. They can't expect a free ride either.

3 comments:

torporific said...

I say bring it on. Out all of those hypocrites.

Marla R. Stevens said...

Another way of viewing outing is truth-telling. The opposite of telling the truth is lying. We as a people developed this habit of lying as a form of self-preservation in times when being known as gay would routinely result in harm being done to the gay person. We lied one for the other in mutual fashion, creating an unspoken coded pact of self-preservation.

But another way of looking at this lying is through the self-defeating, self-deprecating lens of the closet, otherwise known as "passing" -- a lie that perpetuates the negative stereotyping in which it is rooted, divides the community into the "good gays" who can pass and the "bad gays" who can't, and ultimately shreds the self-respect and even the very souls of those who pass.

This passing is part of an old form of self-oppression based in the Gestaltianly very understandable inability of people to handle the fact that something immutable within themselves is the reason for their being oppressed. People need to feel some measure of control over their destinies and will prefer a fictional controllable reason for oppression -- in this case refusing to pass and "acting gay" -- over the reality that it is their being gay that is hated no matter how they behave.

The oppressor, as anti-gay straight society did, eventually figures out that, by the use of random negative reinforcement, they can maneuver the oppressed into doing the oppressors' job of oppressing for them -- as we've done for years to those who've "acted too gay" or, worse, violated the rules about passing by outing others.

Lying in and of itself is damaging to people. I have always said that, unless I have individually agreed otherwise, I will only lie in this regard to protect underaged youths and similarly vulnerable people from harm. I have a right to do my best to be honest and moral and that no one has a moral right to demand that I lie for them or anyone else -- especially when I haven't agreed to it based on a personal understanding that not to lie would result in more harm than good.

It is time to hold the oppressors responsible for their oppression instead of facilitating it by oppressing ourselves. What results will then be a part of their karmic load, where it belongs. In practical terms, if someone doesn't want me to tell the truth about them, they should either make sure I don't know it or get my promise not to divulge it in advance.

Marla R. Stevens said...

Another way of viewing outing is truth-telling. The opposite of telling the truth is lying. We as a people developed this habit of lying as a form of self-preservation in times when being known as gay would routinely result in harm being done to the gay person. We lied one for the other in mutual fashion, creating an unspoken coded pact of self-preservation.

But another way of looking at this lying is through the self-defeating, self-deprecating lens of the closet, otherwise known as "passing" -- a lie that perpetuates the negative stereotyping in which it is rooted, divides the community into the "good gays" who can pass and the "bad gays" who can't, and ultimately shreds the self-respect and even the very souls of those who pass.

This passing is part of an old form of self-oppression based in the Gestaltianly very understandable inability of people to handle the fact that something immutable within themselves is the reason for their being oppressed. People need to feel some measure of control over their destinies and will prefer a fictional controllable reason for oppression -- in this case refusing to pass and "acting gay" -- over the reality that it is their being gay that is hated no matter how they behave.

The oppressor, as anti-gay straight society did, eventually figures out that, by the use of random negative reinforcement, they can maneuver the oppressed into doing the oppressors' job of oppressing for them -- as we've done for years to those who've "acted too gay" or, worse, violated the rules about passing by outing others.

Lying in and of itself is damaging to people. I have always said that, unless I have individually agreed otherwise, I will only lie in this regard to protect underaged youths and similarly vulnerable people from harm. I have a right to do my best to be honest and moral and that no one has a moral right to demand that I lie for them or anyone else -- especially when I haven't agreed to it based on a personal understanding that not to lie would result in more harm than good.

It is time to hold the oppressors responsible for their oppression instead of facilitating it by oppressing ourselves. What results will then be a part of their karmic load, where it belongs. In practical terms, if someone doesn't want me to tell the truth about them, they should either make sure I don't know it or get my promise not to divulge it in advance.