Sunday, October 08, 2006

To Out or Not To Out – That is the question

With this Mark Foley scandal saturating the news lately, it has gotten me thinking (again for the umpteenth time) about where I stand on people who are deep in the closet by day, while living the other side of their double life by night. And I have to admit that I am terribly conflicted about whether outing someone against their will is the right thing to do. But I can tell you for sure that before learning I had a gay son, I was absolutely, positively, firmly against outing anyone.

Like most people who do not know that they have a gay family member, I didn’t really delve much into, let alone become passionate about, issues that had profound affects on the GLBT community. I (selfishly ignorantly) just didn’t think the issue of the closet had anything to do with me or my family and thus I didn’t devote much time to thinking about it either way. (And yes, I am very ashamed to admit this now.) But I had known people who were gay in both high school and college. And one person in particular, with whom I long ago lost contact, has been on my mind a lot these past few years. I knew him in college because he was my boyfriend’s roommate. He was a wonderful young man that I became pretty close to. There was something about him that I could not quite put my finger on, but that made me very very sad. He dated one of my friends, but he never could make a romantic connection with her or anyone else. I was baffled. He was such a great guy. I watched him struggle with “something” that seemed so much bigger than him. There was a sadness about him that only today I think I can identify, but at the time caused me great concern. I now believe he was a young man trying hard to deny his sexual orientation and losing. He was obviously not ready to come to terms with who he was. But if someone had outed him against his will, I believe it could have been devastating for this wonderful young man. And that only strengthened my conviction that outing someone against their will was terribly cruel.

But it wasn’t until I found out one of my own sons was gay that I realized this was not a black and white issue. It was my son who helped me see the grayer hues to this issue. As I have written before we did not know that we had a gay son until we found out accidentally. He did not come out to us and I am not sure if he ever planned on coming out to us. I think he thought he could be the perfect straight son, brother, friend, and classmate in his “day universe” and his real self in some “alternate universe”. Unfortunately, he found out, just as Mark Foley did, that the façade he was living was a fragile one, and like the egg in an egg toss, it inevitably shatters leaving an ugly messy aftermath.

Sadly my son’s first relationship was that egg in the proverbial egg toss and when the relationship started to go south, my son found out firsthand what a great weapon his big secret could be for the not-so-smitten-anymore boyfriend. Needless to say things quickly got ugly with the spurned boyfriend making 100’s of nasty phone calls (I have the cell phone bills to prove it), surprise visits to the gym where my son worked out, and constant threats to expose my son’s sexual orientation to everyone he cared about. The ugliness escalated quickly until it became impossible for me not to notice that something was horribly wrong with his very first relationship. From my still unenlightened perspective, all I could gather from the bits and pieces of my son’s end of phone conversations was that his “girlfriend” seemed to be the reincarnation of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. So naturally I became quite alarmed ----- but not nearly as alarmed as my son, who knew that his fragile little world was about to come crashing down around him if he did not do something quick. And so in his panic over being exposed, he did what he had to do to protect his secret. He chose to continue to put himself in danger and stay in the abusive relationship. And my incessant talking about abusive relationships fell on deaf ears until the day when he had no more secret to desperately protect at any cost. And that was the day he began to make good sound decisions that had good sound outcomes.

This whole story brings me back to Mark Foley and my unease with outing someone against their will. I have come to realize that I was profoundly wrong in thinking that a closeted gay or lesbian was of no concern to me or my family. It may have been my son who helped me see the grayer hues to this issue, but it was Mark Foley who helped me realize that closeted gays and lesbians in public office don’t just affect the GLBT community, they profoundly affect us all. When these closeted politicians make legislative decisions that are influenced more by their fear of exposure than by the desire to do the right thing for their constituents, then I have to say that it is time to consider the advantages of outing that person. And let’s not forget the potential for blackmail and other dark scenarios when someone has a secret that has become more important than the American public they represent.

I have gone back often to those painful days just before and right after learning about my son’s sexual orientation. I have to wonder how much agony my son might have been spared if we had found out sooner about his sexual orientation. And would he have decided to stay in that horrible relationship if there had not been such a fear of people finding out his secret? I think not. I now think that my son’s worst nightmare at the time would have actually been his saving grace. It would ultimately have been the key to his finally finding peace and happiness. But would I council someone to out a kid in my son’s shoes? Never. But my son was not in public office and his decisions, no matter how misguided, only hurt him, not anyone else.

There is an article in the gay magazine, Advocate, right now by a journalist who threatened to out both Mark Foley and Representative Jim Kolbe (from my own state of Arizona) 10 years ago. Both were gay closeted Republican legislators whose voting records screamed hypocrisy and both voted against their (and their gay brethren’s) own best interests to protect their secrets. When it became apparent that there was a good possibility they could be outed, Rep. Kolbe decided to come out on his own, but Rep. Foley chose not to. Fast forward to today and we have Rep. Kolbe getting ready to retire from Congress after many years of honorable service and with the utmost respect of his constituents and his fellow congressmen, and we have Rep. Foley resigning in shame and leaving behind a scandal that threatens to bring down the Republican Party. And probably the most ironic part of this story is that eight months after Rep. Kolbe came out as an openly gay man, the journalist who was threatening to out him got a phone call from the congressman’s press secretary thanking him for the story and:

… wanting to let [the journalist] know that everything was cool and that he[Rep. Kolbe] had never been happier. To his great credit, Jim Kolbe did the right thing and his voting record changed.

Sadly, Rep. Foley’s story doesn’t have the same happy ending.

Update: It looks like Federal prosecutors in Arizona have opened a preliminary investigation into a camping trip that Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe took with two former pages and others in 1996, according to a law enforcement official. And BlogActive is reporting that Congressman Kolbe was still in deeply in the closet when he took that trip.

Update #2: Andrew Sullivan has some very thoughtful insight into outing someone against their will:

The outing crusade gains momentum. Look: I loathe the closet. I despise the hypocrisy in the Republican party. But a witch-hunt is a witch-hunt. If the gay left thinks it will advance gay dignity by using tactics that depend on homophobia to work, that violate privacy, that demonizes gay people, then all I can say is: they are wrong. They will regret it. It will come back to haunt them. And they should cut it out. The fact that their motives might be good is no excuse. Everybody on a witchhunt believes their motives are good. But the toxins such a witchhunt exposes, the cruelty it requires, and the fanaticism of its adherents are always dangerous to civilized discourse. What you're seeing right now is an alliance of the intolerant: the intolerant on the gay left and the intolerant on the religious right. The victims are gay people - flawed, fallible, even pathetic gay people. But they are still people. And they deserve better.

Update #3: Shakespeare’s Sister also has an opinion worth noting on the subject of outing someone against their will:

I would absolutely not support the public outing of a private citizen whose sexuality had no bearing on his/her ability to do his/her job, and whose job had no association with perpetuating public discrimination against the LGBT community. That covers just about every private citizen in the country. Public officials, however, are actively involved in making decisions that affect the LGBT community, and if there’s a public official who consistently votes to limit their rights, but is only afforded his/her position to do so by virtue of the protection of a closet, that’s a real problem.


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