Ethics: Forcing Gays Out of the Closet

Homosexual leaders seek to expose foes of the movement

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While the idea of outing a fellow gay used to be considered repellent under any circumstances, the tactic has become increasingly acceptable to mainstream homosexual leaders. It is practiced by some gay publications, and its propriety has even been debated in the corridors of Congress. Last June, when Republicans falsely implied that House Speaker Tom Foley was gay, Representative Barney Frank threatened to expose Republican officeholders who really are homosexual. Few in Washington doubted that there were such officials, or that Frank, an acknowledged gay, would be able to name them. Republicans were already keenly aware of the ironic fates of two of their most prominent antigay voices, Maryland Congressman Robert Bauman and conservative fund-raiser Terry Dolan. Bauman's political career ended in 1980, when he was charged with soliciting a teenage boy for a paid sex act; Dolan died in 1986 of AIDS complications. Republicans backed off, so Frank did not carry out his threat, and he was at pains to underscore the limited circumstances in which he would apply it: "I referred only to those gay people who shamefully use the fact or accusation of homosexuality as a weapon against others."

Still, many gays and sympathetic straights remain troubled by the idea of outing, even if used only against the movement's avowed enemies. Says Sarah Craig, an associate editor of Chicago's gay-oriented Windy City Times: "Really, you're only using the same bludgeon used to injure you to injure someone else." As a practical matter, moreover, if outing a closeted gay ends his or her career, there is rarely any reason to believe that the target's successor will be more sympathetic to the gay cause. Nonetheless, some prominent gays favor forcing every closeted person to come out, holding that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of and that there is strength in numbers. Novelist Armistead Maupin, a leading gadfly of San Francisco's gay community, was one of the first to confirm Rock Hudson's homosexual life after Hudson announced he had AIDS, and in interviews Maupin has named many other entertainers, some of them married, whom he knows or believes to be gay. Says Maupin of those he would drag out of the closet: "Their embarrassment and self-loathing makes me lose respect for them. It also indicates to me they find my life repugnant."

The debate points up a fundamental division that has burdened the gay-rights cause for decades. Notes Thomas Stoddard, executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and an adjunct professor of law at New York University: "The gay movement is actually based upon two principles that collide. One is privacy, and the other is disclosure, the process of coming out." Those focused on privacy are responding to society as it exists, with its emotional and sometimes physical perils for overt homosexuals. Those favoring disclosure are more concerned with society as they hope it may become, with tolerance for all. The political "causists" are prepared to sacrifice their present lives for future good. The problem with outing is that it claims an unjustifiable right to sacrifice the lives of others as well, whether they agree or not.

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