July 13, 2004

Milbarge: Come Out With Your Hands Up!

by Guest Contributor

There's a bit of a hubbub on Capitol Hill these days, as Congress prepares to take up debate over the Federal Marriage Amendment. Although I'm sure the FMA will engender many hubbubs, the particular hubbub of which I speak is about plans/threats/calls from gay rights activists to out Congressional staffers who work for members of Congress supporting the FMA.

I first heard about all this from a post on NRO's The Corner about the outing of Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, although I didn't think that was really a secret. That ended up leading to this story in the Washington Blade and this one in the Post. Naturally, Wonkette picked it up. And I've also seen interesting thoughts from Anthony Rickey and Chris Geidner.

The other day I had a chat with one of the gay people I work with. He's out and active in the gay community. He and his partner are adopting a kid, and all the baby-lovers in the officer are going goo-goo over that. Our office is very gay-friendly, which I define to mean it's no big deal if someone's gay. This lawyer's partner's name is listed on our home address directory just like every other spouse. Anyway, partly because of the office dynamic and partly because of this particular guy's attitude, it wasn't weird for me to pop in and talk about outing. To save me time, I'll call him George, although that's not his name.

As it turns out, George knows quite a few congressional staffers, both closeted and out, I think largely from his political activities. And George acknowledges that his views are somewhat out of the gay mainstream because he thinks outing is legitimate in certain circumstances. However, he's certainly not the type of person who thinks it's always legitimate and that no one has a right to be in the closet. He thinks the closet is destructive for the gay community, but he understands that some people feel they need to be there.

That said, George thinks that some closeted gays are doing a particular disservice to themselves and other gays if they work for a member of Congress who supports the FMA. There are various issues to balance here, of course. A low-level staffer who has no policy role in working for a moderate Senator is one thing, and different than, say, the chief of staff to that Senator, who is probably in a position to influence policy choices. However, "If you're working for a Jesse Helms type, I don't care if you're answering the phones; you ought to be out." My question was what obligation a gay staffer has to change things, to confront the boss over an issue like the FMA. For that matter, what obligation do any of us have to change the world?

George's response was that gays do have an obligation to make things better, to make it so that all gays can enjoy equal rights and no one has to be in the closet. Maybe all the staffer can do is subject the member of Congress to awkward pauses when the issue comes up, but that's a start. He's realistic that it's not going to change a lot of votes, and maybe it won't change any. But he didn't think that helping get the FMA passed was a good job for a gay person to have.

I'm not trying to say that my friend George is necessarily right. And note that I may be missing a nuance or two from our discussion a few days ago. I wasn't taking notes or anything. But, I thought that the least I could do, in addition to thinking about it from my remove as a heterosexual, was to go talk to the only gay person I know with whom I could comfortably discuss this issue. I realize it's not for me to say whether anybody should be out, or how much any person, straight or gay, should talk about his or her sexual preferences.

I guess I just have two points. First, I wish I lived in a world without a closet, where it wasn't shameful to be gay. But, I don't think it's right for me to out anyone. However, that mentality ends up making this whole thing only a "gay issue." It doesn't often make the "mainstream" media, unless somebody famous gets outed. (I just wonder how this would play if straights were doing the outing.) But I don't think this ought to be solely a gay issue. I think it should concern us all that people are in that position.

Secondly, I know I saw somebody else mention this, but I've lost it now. But I also find it very interesting that the media cover a story like this from the perspective of the outing and whether it's proper, while trying to avoid covering it from the "Senator X is a hypocrite" angle. We see this all the time, the process story. Instead of "stooping" to cover where the President puts his privates, the big media outlets cover the story of the tabloids spreading salacious details. I think constantly covering the-story-of-the-story is bad journalism, in large part because it lets the big media outlets feel better about themselves ("We're above all that!") than they have a right to. The Post won't run an outing story, but it will damn sure run a story about the story outing someone. So, is it a legitimate news story when someone is outed? What does the-story-that-there's-a-story reporting accomplish?

I don't know what the answer to this is, but I'll try to ruminate more on it. I would appreciate any feedback readers care to share in the comments section.

July 13, 2004 06:38 PM | TrackBack

First, I believe that in general, people should be entitled to keep their own secrets. There are exceptions, but this is not it.

Second, if you think about it, gay staff on the hill are the very eyes and ears of the gay rights movement. Why blow them out of the water? It's like outting your own spies.

Posted by: Igots at July 13, 2004 08:53 PM

Not much to add, but wanted to comment on yours to keep you in the game.

Mike Mills must go!

Posted by: Soupie at July 13, 2004 10:18 PM

To respond to Igots, I understand your point. But I guess the outters see it as a matter of principle over practicality, maybe.

Also, as for spies, I don't think there's a lot of doubt where these members of Congress stand on the FMA, so I think it would be hard to mount a stealth operation or something. I don't see how spies would be too useful.

And as for exceptions to the right to keep secrets, is it different if the one in the closet is the elected official as opposed to the staffer?

Posted by: Milbarge at July 13, 2004 11:14 PM

Does a trackback count the same as a comment?

Posted by: Balasubramani at July 14, 2004 12:28 AM

The Wonkette snip was hysterical. No one should have to be in the closet, but if they choose to do so, then it is their own business. Why it should make a difference if they work in a conservative office opposed to a liberal one is beyond me.

Posted by: mr. fun ball at July 14, 2004 07:45 AM

I too despise the story-about-the-story reporting. The reason for those stories is that journalists are L-A-Z-Y, pure and simple. The story about the story does not require you to track down leads, to check facts, or to do any legwork. They can just summarize and hypothesize. It is weak and lazy and oh so easy.

Posted by: Fitz-Hume at July 14, 2004 08:01 AM

As for the outing issue, my personal feeling is that staffers' secrets are their own. What right do I have to out all of my anti-death penalty friends who are prosecutors? The right to salve my emotions? That's pretty damn selfish. I see the Blade's outing of staffers similarly.

Furthermore, I am still not sure I understand how outing the staffers does anyone any good. I have disagreed with bosses over the years, but in very few circumstances would my confronting the boss about an issue actually have a positive effect - all it would do is get me fired. Maybe getting fired is not a consideration for a closeted gay staffer, but if one knows that confronting the boss about a contentious issue will not be fruitful, then why do it? The principle? What principle?

Posted by: Fitz-Hume at July 14, 2004 08:11 AM

Do totally vacuous comments count?

Just in case they don't:

Outing is a personal choice that shouldn't be hijacked by someone else trying to make a political point... you never know quite what being outed is going to do to someone's life.

Posted by: Larry the Longhorn at July 14, 2004 08:39 AM

I'm here to support you...and just in time I think!

Posted by: energy spatula at July 14, 2004 09:38 AM

I think anyone who outs someone against their will should have their background checked, and have all their dirty laundry put out in public too. I can't believe anyone believes they are justified in doing something like that to a fellow human being.

As for the whole media thing, well, the media sucks. That's why we're all reading blogs now.

Posted by: Sebastian Haff at July 14, 2004 09:39 AM

I don't think one needs to be outed in order to do the work of the Gay Rights Movement. If a gay staffer believes that their boss is not properly thinking about the legislation, they should speak up, whether the legislation is budgetary, or the FMA. Of course, if their job is to answer the phones, and they have no right to stand up and give their opinion, then it doesn't really matter whether Lisa the receptionist is a lesbian, does it?

Posted by: David at July 14, 2004 09:58 AM

Did I mention that I thought this was a good post? I guess I just did.

Let me also mention how impressed I am that you posted so quickly after the challenge was issued. Timely and substantive - he's got it all.

Posted by: Fitz-Hume at July 14, 2004 10:56 AM

you get my vote, though I doubt you'll need it after fitz-hume is done stuffing the ballot box.

Posted by: vonplaid at July 14, 2004 12:05 PM

There's a typo in the third paragraph -- "baby-lovers in the officer"

Does this count as a comment? I don't really have anything substantive to add...

Posted by: Scott at July 14, 2004 05:25 PM

On a tenuously-related note, how do people feel about bloggers outing anonymous bloggers? (i.e. a blogger who doesn't use his/her name, or who uses an alias (e.g. Milbarge), being outed on another blog by someone who knows who they really are?)

Posted by: Scott at July 14, 2004 05:27 PM

I for one would be against that, Scott.

Posted by: Milbarge at July 14, 2004 11:15 PM

Sort of related, I helped canvas neighborhoods last night for an organization working to keep an amendment to our state constitution that would ban civil unions between people of the same sex from passing.

Although I'll post a full story about it on my own blog later tonight, here are some favorite tidbits from the locals (this was a very blue collar, middle-America neighborhood with lots of big huge trucks and American flags):

* "Well I can tell you right now, God hates gay people, and he wants them to die."

* "I tell you whut, I got so many DUIs, I can't vote no more, so this here? It don't mean sh* to me."

* "We're having a pool party out back-- ya'll wanna join us? ... Wait, you guys aren't lesbians??"

Posted by: Larry the Longhorn at July 15, 2004 08:18 AM

I expected as much, Milbarge. I only brought it up because I was outed a few weeks ago and I think it was a pretty shitty thing to do, at least without consent.

Posted by: Scott at July 15, 2004 12:23 PM

I think anyone who outs someone against their will should have their background checked, and have all their dirty laundry put out in public too.

Except in communities where being gay does constitute "dirty laundry" (it doesn't in Washington, DC), I wouldn't call one's sexual orientation a shameful secret. At the same time, it is not something that is anyone else's business -- it is much less our business than a prosecutor's views on the death penalty, in fact.

As for the whole media thing, well, the media sucks. That's why we're all reading blogs now.

Oh, come on. When it comes to writing a story on someone else's story, no media outlet tops bloggers.

Posted by: PG at July 15, 2004 05:52 PM

I commend you on outing yourself in a way that contributed to the authenticity of your argument.
If more of your kind would do that, the world might be a better place (or would it put too much pressure on those still in some sort of closet?)

Posted by: arbitraryaardvark at July 17, 2004 03:39 PM
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