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The press breaks out: once used only by activists, outing is growing popular with mainstream reporters.


The February 22 suicide of 28-year-old Sandy Hume, an up-and-coming reporter for The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, sent the Washington rumor mill into overdrive. Speculation reverberated throughout the city that the cause of the suicide was not alcoholism, as had been explained, but threats from prominent House Republicans to out him and his alleged sexual relationship with Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), the husband of former New York congresswoman Susan Molinari. The rumor gained momentum when Paxon, who was readying to fight House majority leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) for the number two position in the House, stunned the Washington establishment three days after Hume's death with his decision to quit politics to be with his family.

Instead of shying away from the politically sensitive stow, reporters from several major news organizations tried to confirm the rumors, which have never been verified and which Paxon vehemently denied. But the willingness of the Washington press corps to chase the story underscores how "outing," once considered off-limits to journalists, has become familiar territory for many reporters.

Indeed, in the case of the rumors surrounding Hume, reporters were tripping over each other in their rush to break the stow. Ann Northrop, who printed the unproven story about Paxon and Hume in her column for the newspaper Lesbian and Gay New York, said she fielded numerous phone calls from respected mainstream journalists about the affair. "When rumors flew about former speaker Tom Foley being gay, nobody wanted to touch it," says Northrop, who worked at CBS News during the 1980s. "Ten years later major news organizations went after [Paxon] enormously." (Like Paxon, Foley denied he is gay.)

Back in the early 1990s, the practice of outing public figures surfaced among gay activists as a way to wage a type of guerrilla warfare on the nation's power elite. Tabloid papers sometimes printed breathless stories about celebrities' secret lives. But a handful of journalists, mostly gay or working for the gay press, began to wage an outing campaign of their own based on more serious political considerations. (The Advocate was among the publications that engaged in outing at the time, but the magazine's present editorial policy prohibits the tactic.)

Chief among this crowd of activist-journalists was Michelangelo Signorile, whose "Gossip Watch" column in the now-defunct OutWeek magazine regularly named names, garnering the admiration or reproach--but always the attention--of gay men and lesbians, not to mention journalists, everywhere. Signorile believed then, as he does now, that outing people in the business world, the entertainment industry, or government would help lead to an equalization of heterosexuality and homosexuality within the media.

Northrop, who worked alongside Signorile when they were both at the direct-action group ACT UP, says the practice of outing really amounted to a new way of thinking about the closet and how it functions. "The whole business of secrecy was the assumption that there was something wrong with being gay," Northrop says. "What Mike did so brilliantly was turn that 180 degrees, saying true liberation and equality mean being open and honest."

But forcing someone to be out was--and still is, to many--ethically problematic. "It's kind of crude journalism to blend one's private life with one's public life to bring them down," says Dick Schwarzlose, a journalism professor at Northwestern University, noting that the activist underpinnings of outing could impair the impartiality of hard-news reporters. "How is a reporter supposed to regain credibility once a source has been outed?"

The mainstream press, especially, was quick to distance itself from the practice early on and rarely followed up on stories originating in the gay press. A March 1990 article in Time magazine, which actually first coined the term outing, condemned the practice, saying no one had the right to sacrifice the lives of closeted gays to an intolerant society.

As homosexuality has become less shocking and more acceptable, the furor over outing has lessened. Signorile claims that the practice in some ways has been "woven" into mainstream journalism. "In the past the whole idea about the opposition to outing was that--from a legal, moral, and ethical point of view--it was something unspeakably horrible," he says. "Today, in all those realms, it's just not so."

In addition to the Paxon-Hume story, Signorile points to other examples of outing in the mainstream press--The Wall Street Journal's reporting in 1995 that Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner had left his wife for a man and Boston Magazine's decision in 1996 to out Republican political strategist Arthur Finkelstein. (In both cases, however, neither man made much of an attempt to hide his private life.) Also telling, Signorile says, is that no major news outlets wrote editorials condemning those stories (although the Wenner stow did spark debate within the journalism community about journalistic ethics) or other articles discussing possibilities that a closeted public figure might be gay.

Yet for the most part, outing by the mainstream press is done more on an ad hoc basis than according to any journalistic standards. Signorile claims that the arbitrary nature of outing stories proves that the media are two-faced in their approach. "There is a certain amount of hypocrisy in the media," he argues. "They do report more casually on people's orientation, but there are clearly people they won't go near." And sometimes the press report only by inference. Where gossip columnists used to invent heterosexual love affairs for stars known to be gay, various media now either refuse to print such stories or, as was the case with a formerly closeted Ellen DeGeneres, coyly speculate about a star's sexuality.

Signorile credits the press's more liberal attitude toward outing to social and cultural shifts in the 1990s. For one thing, more public figures decide to come out on their own nowadays, leading more people to believe that being openly gay does not automatically mean the kiss of death for one's professional life. Also, the increase in openly gay reporters in the newsroom has helped incite discussion of gay issues and politics, opening the door for more gay-related pieces to be given the go-ahead. Signorile also points to the "anger unleashed" in 1996 by the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal bill to ban recognition of same-sex marriages. The law helped ignite a new round of gay outings by activists and reporters more willing to expose or at least question closeted politicians who voted for the measure.

Karen-Louise Boothe, president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and senior political reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, agrees that there has been a major sea change, at least when it comes to outing political figures. "If it's about a [closeted] politician making a policy decision that runs contrary to what is fair and equal, then the issue of outing becomes part of that stow," Boothe says. "How can a solid or thoughtful journalist not ask the question?"

But beyond the issue of political hypocrisy, it seems, few mainstream journalists, even those who are gay, are willing to go the extra mile some activists consider necessary to out high-profile individuals. Gall Shister, an openly lesbian television columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1982 and a vice president for NLGJA, says that in off-the-record conversations she has encouraged gay celebrities to come out but that she would never cross the line and out them herself. "Outing is more of a stroking the ego of the person doing the outing," Shister says. "People are in the closet for a reason. It's not my role in life to impose my timetable on them."

But Signorile says political hypocrisy should not be the only factor in deciding whether to out someone. "We should be reporting on homosexuality with the same criteria we report on people's heterosexuality," he says. "The test should be relevancy, whether or not their sexual orientation is relevant to the action they are taking." By that standard a major sports figure or an actor playing a gay character on television would be fair game. Mainstream journalists, however, may never be willing to make that leap. As Schwarzlose puts it, "Everybody's entitled to a private life, even public figures."

Ghent is a reporter for Legi-Slate, an on-line service of the Washington Post Company.
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Article Details
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Author:Ghent, Bil
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Oct 13, 1998
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