The glass closet

As Foleygate shows, Washington has a unique definition of what it means to be "openly gay." Should the media keep playing along?

Published October 20, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

In 2003, the Washington Blade was preparing a story on the sexual orientation of Florida congressman Mark Foley. By then, Foley's homosexuality was an open secret -- he had been outed by journalist Kurt Wolfe on a New York radio show in 1996.

What was not widely known was that Kirk Fordham, Foley's then chief of staff, was also gay. The Blade knew it, however, and so editor Chris Crain asked Fordham how, and whether, he wanted his sexual orientation identified in the paper. Fordham's response was that he was "out in the community but not in the press," and so the Blade refrained, for a time, from printing anything about Fordham's life as an openly gay man.

This situation is one now faced on a regular basis by reporters and editors in Washington, forcing them to ask questions about how and when they should report on sexual orientation. In an era in which the closet is no longer what it once was, when supposedly closeted individuals may be out to nearly everyone in their life, is it the media's responsibility to help public figures hide the truth from voters? And in the wake of the Foley scandal, does the press need to reevaluate how it deals with the issue?

Complicating matters for many journalists is Washington's unique and complicated version of "out." Some of D.C.'s public figures intentionally cultivate vagueness when it comes to just how out of the closet they are. Fordham was far from the only political operative or official to consider himself out in some situations and not in others. Some "closeted" staffers live active lives inside Washington's gay community, patronizing local gay bars and cohabiting openly with same-sex partners. Some are out to their bosses, even bosses who are ultraconservative Republicans -- Robert Traynham, the director of communications for Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., was reportedly out to his boss before being outed in the press. Still, D.C.'s political class maintains a special distinction between living as openly gay in Washington's gay community and being identified as such in the press, where word might get back to the home congressional district.

"I don't have any discomfort with Kirk's approach," one gay former senior Hill staffer says of Fordham's formulation. "I think in many ways that characterized a lot of people. They were out in the community and not out in the press, and I don't know that there was necessarily a need to be out in the press."

The former staffer took a similar tack in his own life. He was out to almost everyone he knew. "I came out to my family when I was 26," he recalls. "Everybody in my family knew, almost all of my friends knew, my fraternity brothers from college knew. If you looked at a list of who knew about me and who didn't, you would probably have found a far more significant number of people who knew than didn't know."

Michelangelo Signorile, a gay activist who was one of the journalists to pioneer the outing of closeted public officials and is now a host with Sirius Satellite Radio, calls this new development the "glass closet." According to Signorile, it's a phenomenon common to the worlds of entertainment and politics.

"That's what Mark Foley lived in to many extents as well," Signorile explains. "He was out in public, he'd go to certain events, he'd be known to certain people, but he was still 'in the closet.'"

Signorile may have coined the phrase "the glass closet," but John Aravosis, the openly gay founder of Americablog, knows exactly what he means. Aravosis, who himself used to be a staffer for Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, has noted another surprising wrinkle in the Washington version of out. Within the world of gay Washington, many of Capitol Hill's gay Republicans are out about their sexual orientation -- but not about where they work.

"They're closeted about their jobs," Aravosis says. "Everybody knows they're gay; they just don't know they're working for the White House and George Allen."

"The glass closet is one way to talk about it," says Larry Gross, director of the School of Communication in USC's Annenberg School, and the author of "Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing." "[But] another way to talk about it is the well-ventilated closet, which is more comfortable. You're not suffocating in it, because everyone's agreeing to look the other way. You don't have to worry about who's going to see you going into a bar in Dupont Circle, you don't have to find some friendly woman to take to the office Christmas party... because everyone knows."

Still, the former Hill staffer contends, there is a difference in the degree to which elected officials and their staffers can be out. "There's a comfort level with being a staffer that you have that you wouldn't have if you were seeking elected office," he says. "Doesn't mean that you're running around with a rainbow flag plastered all over your forehead or anything, but knowing that you don't have to face the voters, have your name on a ballot or answer in that way gives a certain degree of freedom that perhaps an elected official might not experience."

But back in a home district, says the staffer, where homosexuality may not be as accepted, everyone is a little more circumspect. "I tried not to put myself in a position where I would have done anything that would have caused a problem or an issue ... Staff members are kind of unusual. Lots of times, they wear the mantle of, and take on the persona of, the member they work for, and oftentimes actually represent them in the district, when speaking to constituents, or in the press."

In a situation like that, believes journalist Chris Crain, who left the Blade and now blogs at, it isn't the responsibility of reporters and editors to determine who has officially come out and who hasn't. Journalists should report the facts as they know them. "I don't think people get to make that decision for themselves anymore, to be out in the community and not in the press ... I don't think it's the media's job to navigate a closet that complicated."

Signorile agrees. "It does get to the question of, what does it mean to be out? and, why do reporters play that game?" he says. "If someone is in a gay bar with their boyfriend, and a reporter sees them, how do they go, 'Well, I'm not going to report that, because it's a privacy issue'?"

But Bruce Carroll, an openly gay Republican who runs the conservative blog GayPatriot, says he thinks the decision about being closeted isn't as simple for some people. "Outing is really a long process, and I don't think any one individual's outing process is the same as anyone else's," Carroll says. "One person comes out of the closet and the door shuts immediately, another comes out and back in, in stages ... This is such a personal choice that I can't even fathom why anyone would want to force that choice upon them."

Within the mainstream media, the general standard for reporting on the sexual orientation of those who are at least partially closeted is a combination of newsworthiness and the guideline used by many gay activists, the "Barney Frank rule." Based on a rationale offered by Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay Massachusetts Democrat, when he threatened to release a list of closeted gay Republicans in 1989, the "Frank rule" maintains that outing is acceptable when done to a closeted public figure who is working against the interests of the gay community at large.

"For us to include sexual orientation in a story," offers Kristin Gazslay, a deputy managing editor with the Associated Press, "it needs to be relevant, just as it needs to be relevant to say what someone's race is, whether their children are adopted, anything like that." Gazslay doesn't consider the simple fact of someone's sexual orientation newsworthy. "But if it's at odds with a public position, or if it strays outside of someone's personal life, that clearly makes it newsworthy. Even then, that doesn't mean we write about it."

Gazslay gave as one example former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, who resigned in 2004 after coming out of the closet and declaring, "I am a gay American." "We'd heard that [McGreevey was gay] for years," Gazslay says. But, he adds, "we did not pursue it in earnest on that basis alone. But when we heard that the person he was supposedly involved with was on the state's payroll, that's when we started investigating that and trying to pin it down."

A spokesperson for the New York Times said Bill Keller, the paper's executive editor, was unavailable for comment, but provided Salon with the relevant section of the Times' reporting policies, which reads, "Cite a person's sexual orientation only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader."

Mark Leibovich, a reporter for the Times (who is also the brother of Lori Leibovich, a contributing writer for Salon), recently wrote an article for the Times about gay Republicans on Capitol Hill.

"We don't out people," he says. "It has to be relevant to the story. But if there's someone who's openly gay, and it's relevant, then we'll report that."

Asked what he defines as "openly gay," Leibovich answered, "Someone who has introduced themselves as such and basically who considers themselves openly gay. We generally leave the standard up to the person involved."

Spokespeople for Leonard Downie, the executive editor of the Washington Post, did not respond to requests for comment. But the Post was the first mainstream outlet to disclose the sexual orientation of Jeff Trandahl, the former clerk of the House. Trandahl, whose job included overseeing the page program, and who testified before the House Ethics Committee for four hours Thursday, has become one of the names frequently mentioned in the Foley scandal. (A gay paper in Houston, the Voice, referred to Trandahl as openly homosexual on Oct. 4, three days before the Post.) In the last paragraph of an article on what the staff of Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert may have known about Foley's relationships with pages, the Post wrote:

"Congressional aides point to another factor that links Trandahl to the Foley matter. A member of the board of the national gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, Trandahl is openly homosexual and personally close to the now-disgraced former lawmaker, who announced through his lawyer this week that he is gay."

Jonathan Weisman, the Post reporter who wrote that article, did not speak to Trandahl directly for the story. According to Weisman, Trandahl didn't respond to numerous requests for comment.

"I was reluctant to do that without actually talking to him," Weisman notes. "However, I've been in touch with a lot of people who are friends with him who have told me [that] he's very openly gay, that he has an AIDS ride team that advertises and seeks donations. He's on the board of directors of the Human Rights Campaign. I called the HRC and asked if he was openly gay, and they said yes, and so I didn't feel like we were outing him in any way."

Weisman also says that there was no discussion specifically relating to whether it was appropriate to publish Trandahl's sexual orientation, and that he wasn't aware of any Post policies on the subject.

"It's funny -- I don't think that this has ever come up with my editors. I wrote it and they ran it," Weisman says. "I came to the fairly obvious conclusion that Trandahl was very much public about his sexuality and very out. And frankly, except for Kolbe [Jim Kolbe, an openly gay Republican congressman from Arizona], none of the other players in this drama have been equally forthcoming, and so I would be reluctant to discuss the sexuality of any other players."

In the case of Kirk Fordham, the Washington Blade withheld what it knew for a year. The paper didn't disclose Fordham's homosexuality when he told them he was out in the community but not in the press, but in July 2004, Mike Rogers, a gay activist who has outed more than a dozen gay members of Congress and staffers, did. Two days later, the Blade ran a story that discussed Fordhams sexual orientation and printed his quote.

Two years later, the mainstream media hesitated before mentioning Fordham's sexual orientation, even though he himself had uttered the word "out." It was Oct. 5, a week into Foleygate and five days after Fordham's name first surfaced in the scandal, before the Los Angeles Times became the first mainstream news outlet to report what Rogers and the Blade had revealed two years earlier. (Two blogs, Wonkette and Talking Points Memo, had made reference to Fordhams sexual orientation on October 4.)

Peter Wallsten, one of the Los Angeles Times reporters who wrote the papers story on Fordham, says that in his mind, Fordham's previous outing was not enough to run with the story, and that he confirmed Fordhams sexual orientation elsewhere before printing it. I dont think it was sufficient that it was in the Blade, Wallsten states. He says he was certain that Fordham would not be troubled by how the paper described him, but won't specify how he knew that. I had indications that it was not a problem. He included the information because, he says, it was "important and noteworthy" in the context of the story.

As the AP's Gazslay explains, in such a thicket, it's hard to have any kind of blanket policy about outing, even when you think you do. "Its difficult to have a policy per se because of all the variables that go into decisions about when its relevant." She falls back on relevance, which she tries to determine on a case-by-case basis.

But many gay activists, scholars and journalists think the mainstream media has a double standard when it comes to relevance. Most reporters don't think twice about referring to someone's heterosexuality. "The mainstream media, they do this thing where they cover gay stories ... and then dance around the whole subject of sexual orientation," marvels Kevin Naff, the current editor of the Blade. "But the fact of someones sexual orientation alone is not a private thing ... Straight people wear wedding rings to advertise that they are married, they have kids. They dont hide the fact that theyre straight."

Gross and others believe that the media has a tendency to make private for gays what they would not for straights. "It is both derived from and supporting a stigma, which is that some things are just too private to talk about, or inappropriate in a family newspaper," Gross says. "You can talk about certain things about heterosexual public figures where in the context of gay public figures you cant talk about much milder things ... I think the exaggerated concern over that reveals the distaste, the stigma and all that rather than the fact that this is such a delicate matter."

Aravosis thinks this distinction comes, to some extent, from a misguided attempt on the part of the press to shield gay people. "Theyre trying to protect us, but its not always clear against what ... Ironically, it may play into the dirty thing, in that they think, Oh, we dont want to report that."

Eric Hegedus, president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, agrees. "The news media is very much afraid to bring up this topic, because theres this perceived shame to it. I think thats something that journalists need to work on."

The former senior Hill staffer says he thinks some gay people do, in a sense, still need to be protected more than straight people. "Somebody whos straight does not face the potential backlash or retribution to their careers, to their personal lives, to other aspects of their being in the same way that somebody who is gay does," he says. "I think certainly as time passes, it becomes much, much easier for somebody to be open. But there are still societal pressures about being openly gay."

Yet there is no doubt that attitudes are changing -- a recent poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS showed a 12-point drop in the percentage of Americans who believe "homosexual relations between adults are morally wrong" over just the past three years, from 49 percent to 37 percent. That same poll showed 43 percent of Americans "didnt care much either way" about homosexual relations, a 7-point increase in the same short time period.

"Theres no need to be in the closet anymore," Naff insists. "You need only look at the careers of people like Jim Kolbe and even Kirk Fordham to see that being openly gay does not preclude you from having a successful career."

Crain says he believes the Foley scandal may ultimately produce what he sees as positive changes in the press, that "any time theres a story like this where we peer in to the closet, the mainstream media comes closer to applying the same rules for politicians who are gay as they do for politicians who are straight."

"I would hope that this story would teach the mainstream media that they should ask the same questions of all public figures, regardless of their orientation, and print the answer," Crain says. "If the media would ask these questions when they would ask them of anybody else, we wouldnt be seeing this stuff only because of scandal. As it is, it gives people a skewed notion of what being gay is."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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