Features » December 6, 2006
Outing is In Again
Did Bill Maher break the Barney Frank Rule?
Over the past year, gay sex scandals have rocked right-wing political and religious circles in the United States. Jim West (mayor of Spokane, Wash.), Mark Foley (congressman from Florida), and the Rev. Ted Haggard (president of the National Association of Evangelicals) all learned the sting of a public flogging. The first two men were “outed” when their homosexual orientation was involuntarily exposed publicly by investigative journalists, while Haggard was outed by a gay male escort who claimed to have had sex with him. Historically, the press has been hesitant to give a voice to allegations of hypocrisy if they relate to hidden homosexuality, but the tide is beginning to turn, if only slightly.
On Nov. 8, comedian Bill Maher appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” and told the world that Ken Mehlman, head of the Republican National Committee, is gay. Here is what transpired:
Maher: A lot of the chiefs of staff, the people who really run the underpinnings of the Republican Party, are gay. I don’t want to mention names, but I will Friday night.
King: You will Friday night?
Maher: Well, there’s a couple of big people who I think everyone in Washington knows who run the Republican …
King: You will name them?
Maher: Well, I wouldn’t be the first. I’d get sued if I was the first.
Maher: Ken Mehlman. Okay, there’s one I think people have talked about. I don’t think he’s denied it when he’s been, people have suggested, he doesn’t say …
King: I never heard that. I’m walking around in a fog. I never … Ken Mehlman? I never heard that. But the question is …
Maher: Maybe you don’t go to the same bathhouse I do, Larry.
In a frenzy of self-censorship, the network, a subsidiary of Time-Warner, edited out 12 seconds of tape, removing the mention of Mehlman before the program was re-aired later that night, also redacting the transcript as if to pretend the comments were never uttered.
Nevertheless, on Nov. 10, a GOP spokeswoman announced that Mehlman would resign his post at the end of his term in January. That evening, despite his teaser on CNN, Maher had nothing to say about gay Republicans on his live broadcast of Real Time with Bill Maher. It seems that Maher took his own words, “I’d get sued if I was the first,” to heart. Maher did elaborate some on Nightline on Nov. 15, explaining:
Larry kept pressing me about this issue, about gays and names. And I thought that well, you know, I’m a political junkie, probably like you are. And so, you know, in my writers’ room, this is anything but news. And by the way, I’m not a million percent sure it’s true. I mean, I never dated the guy. But I don’t feel especially bad about if this happened to a Republican who is very much part and parcel of this administration, which has used gay issues so divisively. It’s hugely hypocritical.
The Frank rule
“The press still feels it’s such a horrible thing to even say it,” says Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). “It’s in their psyches … deeply ingrained homophobia.” In 1989, the openly gay legislator turned gay-baiting around on Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who had begun a “whisper campaign” about Rep. Thomas Foley (D-Wash.) being gay. Frank threatened to out five closeted top Republican officials, saying, “If they don’t cut the crap, something’s going to happen, and I’m going to happen it … and my list will be accurate.” The rumors stopped immediately.
With his very public threat, Frank promulgated what is now widely known as “the Frank Rule,” which governs whether outing is justified. “If you’re not a hypocrite or misleading people, you have the right to be quiet about [being gay],” said Frank at the time.
Outing has been controversial within the gay community since it gained steam in the late ’80s–and gay activists are not united behind “the Frank Rule.” For decades, they have fought amongst themselves over whether outing should be used as a weapon, even of defense. One activist, Michaelangelo Signorile, penned a weekly gossip column devoted to outing in the now-defunct magazine OutWeek, for which he was roundly, but not universally, condemned. Many activists have recently tapped into their “inner blogger,” cross-posting on the virtues and dangers of outing.
Outing for political gain is nothing new. More than 70 years ago, left-wing journalists outed Ernst Röhm, Hitler’s closest ally. The Nazi party quickly turned on him, executing him without a trial during the Night of the Long Knives in June 1934. After the Stonewall Riots of 1969, a nascent gay movement spilled out into the American streets, demanding an end to the closet. They met with significant opposition from within and without. The AIDS epidemic outed many, if posthumously, who had carefully cultivated solid cover stories of heterosexuality, most notably Rock Hudson and Roy Cohn.
As more gay Americans, particularly celebrities, came out and claimed their identity as gays and lesbians, the stigma began to lessen and societal attitudes softened. This year, former boy band member Lance Bass came out to a collective yawn. As the Democratic Party became more comfortable with gays in their midst, the opposite happened within the Republican Party as its social conservative base grew.
Out on the Internet
The single greatest change in the politics of outing has occurred with the advent of the “electronic press.” The freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution is not intended only for the benefit of the Fourth Estate. What Gutenberg did in 1447 for those who could afford the printing press, the Internet is doing for everyman–providing a platform for conversation and conversion.
As the line between news producer and consumer blurs, so too does the distinction between journalism and activism. CNN tried to obliterate proof of a modern outing. But within hours, one of their viewers, John Aravosis, posted the redacted transcript on his AmericaBlog.com, as well as links to the “before” and “after” videos, which he posted on YouTube. (Aravosis gained near-celebrity status when he broke the Jeff Gannon, a.k.a James Guckert, White House press/gay escort story in February 2005.) Now he is in the process of fighting what he calls “a cease-and-desist order” from CNN.
Even before Maher appeared on CNN, blogger Michael Rogers pursued Mehlman and posted video from their face-to-face encounter at a Capitol Hill fundraiser on Oct. 23, where Rogers demanded Mehlman comment on his “conflicting answers on his sexuality.” Rogers has been using his Web site, blogActive.com, to crack open the door of the Republican closet for quite a while, sending out press releases and landing interviews to pursue other key closeted Republicans. His site lists senators, congressmen, and key Republican Party and White House advisors, complete with investigative reporting into their alleged hypocrisy.
It is widely accepted, and supported by polling, that younger people simply do not perceive homosexuality as a taboo in the way their parents and grandparents do. The anti-gay agenda currently at the foundation of the Republican Party may well be the last major swing of the pendulum in that direction. The party will likely have to re-imagine its big tent philosophy in light of its losses in the midterm elections. Until then, the public will have to continue to navigate between the extremes of corporate media self-censorship and the “Wild West”, no-holds-barred style journalism of the “watchblogs”–all of us deciding for ourselves what news is fit to print.
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John Ireland covers progressive politics and social dynamics in the United States, exploring "democracy in action." He has been published in numerous periodicals, including Newsweek, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Baltimore Sun and the Advocate.