HILL OF BEANS: Out of This World

My old friend Andrew Sullivan recently published a New York Times Magazine piece asking why certain public figures don't just come right out and...come right out. He looked at Gore's campaign manager Donna Brazile, Ed Koch, Rosie O'Donnell, Ricky Martin and Richard Simmons, and presented evidence of their gayness that is as open-and-shut as any reader is likely to require. This was not, Sullivan said, to be confused with the 1980s practice of outing."I don't believe in 'outing' people," he wrote. "But I don't believe in 'inning' them, either. I have no evidence that, say, Donna Brazile or Ricky Martin is gay or straight. But I do know that their studied avoidance of the subject, along with their eager divulgence of any number of other private matters, invites an obvious and legitimate question. And, yes, it is legitimate."There comes a point, surely, at which the diminishing public stigmatization of homosexuality makes this kind of coyness not so much understandably defensive as simply feeble: insulting to homosexuals, who know better, and condescending to heterosexuals, who deserve better."If Sullivan isn't outing, then he's providing a functional substitute. Whether a coyness is "feeble," "insulting" or "condescending" is not the point. (Nor is it even necessarily "coyness.") Like anyone else, a gay person can -- not must -- say his sex life is none of anyone's business. How is that "insulting" to homosexuals? And how do heterosexuals "deserve better"? I don't think I've ever met a heterosexual who has any opinions at all on outing -- let alone a hair-trigger sensitivity to what he "deserves" from gays in the matter of disclosure.Sullivan argues that Donna Brazile's unwillingness to talk about her sexuality makes no logical sense. If she's gay, he's right, for Brazile is a gay activist who eagerly mixes the personal and the political. Nor is she a respecter of anyone else's sexual privacy. (She was fired from the Dukakis campaign in '88 for spreading rumors that George Bush was having an extramarital affair.) But what if, arguendo, she's a-sexual? (Which is, as Bob Dole knows, the only sexual orientation our society views as truly disgraceful.) If Brazile -- again, arguendo -- doesn't know what her sexuality is, or has none to begin with, then it's Sullivan's argument that's illogical. Either that or it's simply cruel. His point makes sense only if he's outing her.What to make of Sullivan's rejection of "inning," a term wholly without meaning even by the terms of his own argument? It's obviously a disclaimer, a face-saving way of coming around to outing after long and vocal opposition. (In this it resembles the preposterous claims of diehard rightists like Chris Matthews to be "old Democrats.") Sullivan, to be sure, doesn't follow the classic rationale for outing, as it was practiced by Michelangelo Signorile at Out. That rationale was basically that we're in the middle of a revolution against a long-entrenched repression, and that the revolution can fail only if "enough good people do nothing" -- i.e., allow the broader society to ignore just how many gays there are among us. Hiding your sexuality becomes like draft-dodging: it exposes your fellow gays to defeat and re-subjugation in an otherwise winnable war. Outing is a last resort; think of it as conscription.But whether voluntary or impressed, coming out is a communal obligation in a dangerous world. Sullivan's outing, by contrast, is based on the assumption that it's not a dangerous world for gays. In fact, we live "at a time when the stigma against homosexuality is far weaker than even 10 years ago." It's the safety of coming out that makes staying in the closet deplorably hyperscrupulous. Of Brazile he asks, "Would she be fired for talking about being gay or straight? Not very likely by a candidate who supports making discrimination against homosexuals illegal."Sullivan's both right and wrong. Of course, Gore, dependent as he is on gay fundraising, organization and votes, could not fire Brazile if she came out. But there's no doubt he'd dearly love to, once he considered what the Catholic voters in must-win Michigan thought about his campaign being run by a lesbian. Not to mention the border states like Missouri, Kentucky and his native Tennessee, in which -- if everything clicks absolutely perfectly for Gore -- he'll win by a quarter of a percentage point.This is mere electoral politics we're talking about here, not ethics. But you know what? For that reason, once the campaign was over, an out-of-the-closet Donna Brazile would never, ever, ever manage a serious national campaign again. And since what holds for the hustings often holds for the marketplace, most everyone on Sullivan's list has very good reason to stay in the closet. (The Latin Americans who could make Ricky Martin a billionaire, for instance, just love open homosexuals -- that must be why they have so many colorful names for them.)Sullivan's form of outing is more optimistic than Signorile's. But there is a logic to Signorile's antics that's missing here, a shoe that's not dropping. If gay rights has triumphed to the extent Sullivan claims, then the proper attitude toward coming out of the closet ought to be the one gays always urged toward sexual orientation itself: Who cares?Outing is the opposite of this attitude. It is a logical tactic only if the gains of the gay rights movement remain provisional, precarious, reversible. "It's as if the closet has had every foundation and bearing wall removed," Sullivan laments, "but still stands, supported by mere expediency, etiquette and the lingering shards of shame."My guess is that Sullivan has radicalized on the question of outing because it's dawning on him that the closet is in fact sturdier and more structurally sound than he had heretofore thought. Sociologist Alan Wolfe's devastating finding that homosexuality is the one progressive cause to which American suburbanites remain vocally unsympathetic, the defeat of gay marriage in Hawaii's courts and at ballot boxes everywhere, the collapse in ratings for gay-themed tv shows... This is not a diagnosis that I make with any particular joy, but Sullivan's article adds unwitting evidence that what Richard Brookhiser has called "The Gay Moment" is drawing to a close.

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