Re-outing Charlie Crist

A new film about closeted gay Republicans attacks the media's hesitation about outing, but doesn't deliver any surprises of its own.

Published April 24, 2009 7:45PM (EDT)

A movie premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival this week is bound to cause at least a little bit of outrage. That's not surprising, considering it's, well, called "Outrage," and is a documentary made by a former aide in the Clinton White House about about closeted gay politicians.

I haven't seen the film, but from what I've read, the promise that it will actually out some politicians seems to be overhyped. From the list compiled by the Los Angeles Times, it appears that most of the people targeted in the movie have been outed to one extent or another already.

The person most reviewers have been focusing on is Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who was recently married -- his engagement was announced right around the time when speculation was mounting that he could be chosen as John McCain's running mate. He was actually first outed back in 2006, by Bob Norman, a reporter for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach, who was also the first reporter to the story of former Rep. Mark Foley's sexuality, in 2003.

That said, just because there's not much news to the film doesn't mean it's not a important discussion worth having. The issue is one I've been thinking about since my earliest days on staff at Salon, when, in the wake of the Foley scandal, I wrote two articles (they're available here and here) about a number of semi-closeted gay Republicans, the ethics of outing and the media's attitude about it. Some people, like the makers of "Outrage," follow what's known as the "Barney Frank rule," for its creator, openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. In short, the guideline is that it's acceptable to out those people who, from the closet, are working against what's believed to be the interest of the LGBT community at large.

You can debate the propriety of that, and plenty of people do. But the double standard in the media about reporting on sexual orientation -- same-sex relationships are treated as something that should be kept secret, but no such judgment is made about heterosexual relationships -- is potentially harmful in many different ways.

First of all, it means that we don't hear about the sexuality of some prominent people who are gay, from Foley to singer George Michael and many others, until there's some scandal involved. That only reinforces the old stereotype of gay people as deviant. So does the feeling in the media that gay people should be especially protected from having their sexuality publicized. As 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," told me back in 2006, "You can talk about certain things about heterosexual public figures where in the context of gay public figures you can't 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."

And, in cases like Crist's, it means that the media knows something its audience doesn't, and is holding back information about people who are running for public office. When his engagement was announced, there was largely no discussion of what most every national political reporter was probably thinking. What there was instead was a sort of inside joke, which was easy to catch if you were in on the secret, but not obvious to most readers and viewers. MSNBC's Chris Matthews, for example, could barely suppress an impish smile when talking about the news. It's time to move past that in some form or another, and if the movie helps in that respect, then that's a good thing -- even if it's not actually outing anyone itself.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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