Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Outrage (Magnolia Pictures, 2009)
Exposing Hypocrisy or Perpetrating It?
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Congressmember Barney Frank, former Senator Larry Craig (mug shot), former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, former Human Rights Campaign executive director Elizabeth Birch, author/activist Larry Kramer. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.
One wonders if director Kirby Dick — 50-something and straight, at least by his own account — picks such sexually provocative subjects for his documentaries because of his last name. So far he’s made Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, in which the title character was a man with cystic fibrosis who responded to being in constant pain by ramping up his discomfort level through having his wife subject him to extreme S/M; Twist of Faith, which showed a man dealing with the long-term trauma of having been sexually abused in his boyhood by a Roman Catholic priest; and This Film Is Not Yet Rated, about the motion-picture rating system and how it reflects America’s hypocrisy on matters sexual. His latest, Outrage, is an old-fashioned morality play in which you know from the get-go who the good guys are and who the bad guys are: the good guys are the independent reporters and activists who “out” closeted Queer politicians and the bad guys are the politicians themselves and most of the mainstream media, who actively and passively collude with them to maintain their secrets.
If this sounds like a movie based on a conspiracy theory, it’s because it is; in his written prologue — after a dizzying series of credits that makes it look like the projectionist is still fiddling with his lens to get the film in focus — Dick actually uses the C-word to describe the tacit (and, he alleges, sometimes not so tacit) alliance between homosexually active but heterosexually identified politicians and the media who cover them. He makes the point that hetero sex scandals involving politicians get debated endlessly and become fodder for tabloids and ostensibly “serious” news outlets alike (does the name “Bill Clinton” mean anything to you?), while homo ones mostly get swept under the carpet unless the homoactive politician gets caught in a police sting in a cruisy restroom like former Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) or soliciting teenage staffers for sex like Congressmember Mark Foley (R-Florida).
Outrage is a film carefully constructed to give the illusion that it’s more fearless than it is. It’s done in a dead-serious fashion; anyone who enjoyed the Michael Mooreisms of This Film Is Not Yet Rated — particularly the whole plotline of Dick and the two women private eyes (a Lesbian couple) he hired to break the omertà of the movie ratings board and find out its members’ secret identities — and was hoping for more of the same this time will be sorely disappointed. What’s more, Dick himself doesn’t “out” anyone, nor are there any new revelations in the film. Everyone named as a closeted Gay in the film — including Craig, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, California Congressmember Dave Dreier, former Louisiana Congressmember Jim McCrery and former New York Mayor Ed Koch (all men, and all Republicans except Koch) — has been publicized as such either by reporters for alternative newspapers or by Michael Rogers, the film’s principal “hero,” on his blog, blogactive.com.
The most blatant aspect of the morality-play nature of Outrage is that Dick adopts as his own the self-proclaimed agenda of “outers” Rogers, Michaelangelo Signorile (who along with Gabriel Rotello, his editor at the short-lived Queer publication OutWeek in New York from 1989 to 1991, invented “outing” in the first place) and Larry Kramer (founder of ACT UP and a close associate of Signorile and Rotello “in the day”). They insist that in seeking to expose certain politicians as Queer, they’re not punishing them for their homosexuality, but rather for their hypocrisy: for working, speaking and voting against the interests of the Queer community. The advertising copy for Outrage calls the film “a searing indictment of the hypocrisy of closeted politicians with appalling Gay rights voting records who actively campaign against the LGBT [Queer] community they secretly belong to.”
But what’s presented in the film as holding closeted Queer politicians to a standard of supporting Queer issues and rights can also be read as an ideological enforcement action, insisting that all Queers in public life adopt a liberal-Left policy agenda not only on Queer issues but everything else as well. The litmus-test issues on which the film bases its definition of who’s pro-Queer and who’s anti-Queer in public life are anti-discrimination legislation, anti-hate crimes legislation, “HIV/AIDS” funding and marriage equality for same-sex couples. The message of both Dick’s “outer” heroes and Dick himself is that unless you support that entire agenda — one associated far more with the Democratic than the Republican party — you’re “anti-Gay” and therefore your private sexual orientation is fair game for public scrutiny, whereas if you do support it your right to sexual privacy should be, and will be, respected.
All those items can be subject to legitimate question. You could be staunchly in favor of people’s right to be Queer and express their sexuality with members of their own gender and still oppose private-sector anti-discrimination laws as a violation of the rights of employers and employees to associate freely. You could oppose hate-crimes legislation on the ground that if you add years to the sentence of a person convicted of murder, robbery or some other felony on the ground that it was motivated by the victim’s homosexuality, the additional punishment is essentially one for anti-Queer thoughtcrime. You could oppose “HIV/AIDS” funding if you believe (as I do) that there are serious problems both with the mainstream explanation for AIDS and the drug-centered “therapy” approach that has become the standard of care, especially since most so-called “AIDS funding” goes to pay inflated prices for AIDS medications and therefore is really corporate welfare for Big Pharma. And you could even question whether same-sex relationships really ought to be called “marriages” and be put on the same legal basis as the opposite-sex relationships which actually produce children and propagate the species.
Now, most of those putative positions bear no relationship to my politics at all. I think it’s outrageous that in 31 states you can legally be denied employment for being Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual and in 39 states you can legally be denied employment for being Transgender. It’s also outrageous that the rights of committed Gay and Lesbian partners to marry each other is still a live-wire controversy in this country, and that the opponents of same-sex marriage openly and proudly boast that their aim is to write their understanding of the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition into this country’s secular law — and that they keep sounding off on the “marriage is for procreation” line when plenty of heterosexual couples don’t reproduce and many Queer couples are raising kids — either ones they’ve adopted (except in Florida, where there’s an outright ban on adoptions by same-sex couples which the putatively Gay Governor Crist fully supports), ones they’ve conceived with third-party help or ones they had normally in previous heterosexual relationships.
I’m a lot more conflicted about “HIV/AIDS” funding and a bit uneasy about hate-crimes legislation as well. Overall, it’s a good thing to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of characteristics like race, religion and gender that qualify for hate-crimes enhancements — but the mainstream Queer community’s defense of hate-crime legislation is uncomfortably close to the one Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia offered for sodomy laws in his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas: that even if we can’t enforce a law targeting certain people’s behavior, we ought to be able to have it on the books anyway just to express social disapproval of what they do. But the point isn’t to take one side or another on the debate over these issues; rather, it’s to say that reasonable people — including reasonable Queer people — can debate them and take different sides, and it’s troublesome to declare one side the “enemy” because they adopt a view on marriage or discrimination legislation or hate crime law or AIDS funding different from the liberal-Left consensus of the mainstream Queer establishment.
What’s more, the idea of declaring certain people “enemies” of the Queer community for opposing anti-discrimination, hate-crimes or marriage-equality legislation runs into another profoundly disturbing possibility: what do we do with Queer people who believe in a strong national defense, aggressive pursuit of the “war on terror,” a lassiez-faire economy with little or no government interference with the market and the private sector, and an approach to civil rights that involves protecting individuals rather than groups? All those beliefs would lead them to be far more comfortable with the Republican than the Democratic party — yet the Republicans, over the last 30 years (ever since the rise of the evangelical Christian Right and its emergence as a key part of the Republican voter base), have also embraced an aggressive challenge to the policy agenda of the Queer community and the very existence of what they refer to as “so-called ‘Gay rights.’”
Should a person with that mix of issue positions — actively Queer and concerned with the equal rights of his or her peers, but also conservative or Right-wing on most non-Queer issues — be expected to compromise everything else he or she believes in for the sake of his or her sexual orientation? Kirby Dick and his “heroes” obviously believe that. Yet in some ways there’s a certain poignancy to the lives of some of the people Dick and company place on the “villain” side of their ledger, a sad reality that they can’t work for the conservative causes they believe in without having to fear exposure and disgrace if their homosexual activities are revealed, either accidentally by circumstances or deliberately by “outers.” In that sense, it’s ironic that the promotional campaign for Outrage is using the slogan, “Do ask, do tell,” because Queer conservatives frequently find themselves in the same position as Queer servicemembers under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: able to serve their country in the way they choose but only if they continually lie about themselves, and constantly fearful that their real orientation will come out anyway, ruin their careers and deprive them of that ability to serve.
What’s more, Outrage takes an uncomfortably essentialist view of sexual orientation that divides the human race into two groups: “straight” and “Gay.” The word “Bisexual” appears in the film exactly twice: once when former Human Rights Campaign executive director Elizabeth Birch is rattling off the litany by which the Queer community defines itself these days — “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender” — and once when Senator Craig, shown in a film clip from a TV interview, says, “I’m not homosexual” and in the same breath quickly adds, “I’m not Bisexual.” Just as Barack Obama is almost universally referred to as “America’s first African-American president” when he is in fact mixed-race and his white parent had far more of a role in his upbringing than his Black one, so the people the movie purports to “out” are described throughout as “Gay” even though many of them are (or have been) married to women and have fathered children. Why should one assume that the feelings of a so-called “Gay politician” for his wife and children are automatically less important to him emotionally — or even physically — than whatever he’s getting out of his clandestine male-on-male trysts? And why do so many Queer people automatically call such people “Gay” when, at least by their behavior, they’re clearly Bisexual?
Not only does Outrage avoid these issues, it stacks the deck against any consideration of them. Dick goes out of his way to tell us that not only does Larry Craig deny being Bisexual, but the three children Craig was raising weren’t his — they were his wife’s by a previous marriage. Dick also brings on a former college classmate of Louisiana Congressmember McCrery who claims that McCrery was a liberal Democrat when in school, and it was only when he decided to run for Congress in a conservative district that he did a political 180°, re-registering as Republican, joining a Right-wing evangelical church and adopting a hard-Right stance against Queer rights and on other issues as well. Dick’s agenda is not to present the dilemma faced by his subjects in its real complexity; rather, under the guise of exposing “hypocrisy,” it’s to demonize them and get his audience not to understand them, but to hate them as much as he does.
That’s why the film contains some extraordinary scenes, including one in which a Queer interviewee asks how the wives of the homosexually active politicians handle being married to them and why they stay with them. (Probably for many of the same reasons Hillary Clinton has stayed with her husband despite his multiple adulteries with women.) This person then goes on to suggest that the wives should be getting regular STD screenings — a surprising endorsement of the homophobic idea that male-to-male sex is somehow dirtier than male-to-female sex and more likely to lead to infection. Actually it’s not that surprising when you realize that two of the people Dick presents as “heroes,” Signorile and Kramer, were strong supporters of an anti-sex movement in the New York Queer community in the mid-1990’s that, ostensibly to prevent the spread of AIDS, sought to close all public sex locations and actively lobbied the police department to shut down bathhouses and public cruising areas, either by undercover entrapments or open raids.
Dick’s choices of “good guys” among Queer politicians and activists are equally troublesome. He presents former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, Massachusetts Congressmember Barney Frank and former Arizona Congressmember Jim Kolbe on the “good” side of his moral ledger and totally ignores the fact that both Frank and McGreevey were dragged out of the closet by scandals. Frank was forced out after one of his boyfriends was caught running a rent-boy business out of the Congressmember’s office and using a taxpayer-funded phone line to do so. McGreevey was driven both out of the closet and out of office after a young man he was trying to seduce revealed that the governor had bribed him with a government job to have sex with him. In forgiving his “good guys” like Frank and McGreevey despite their clearly improper, and likely illegal, behavior, while lambasting his “bad guys” (though, of all his “outing” victims, Craig is the only one who openly broke the law), Dick, under the guise of exposing hypocrisy, is really perpetrating hypocrisy.
Another one of the film’s “good guys” is Dan Gurley, former North Carolina field director for the Republican National Committee (in which capacity he once mailed a postcard to churchgoers in Southern states saying that Democrats would take away their Bibles and turn their states over to homosexuals) and now active with Equality California. One person that’s missing from the movie is former Congressmember Mark Foley (R-Florida), despite the national scandal surrounding his exposure in 2006 for sexually harassing male Congressional pages and sending them disgustingly lubricious e-mails. Dick told an interviewer for the Evening Spot blog that the reason he left out Foley was, “Mark Foley initially had some anti-Gay votes he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, like three quarters of the Congress, but very soon after that, even though he was quasi-closeted, he had a very good pro-Gay voting record.” Dick’s attitude towards Gurley and Foley is a grim indication of the film’s (and the filmmaker’s) ideological agenda. He wants closeted Gay Republicans not only to stop being closeted but to stop being Republicans — or at least stop being conservatives.
He may not get his wish. One person he briefly interviewed is self-proclaimed Gay conservative and former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, who’s become a role model for a new generation of Queer Rightists, some of whom have gone farther towards Right-wing orthodoxy than he has. San Diego is the home of City Councilmember Carl DeMaio, who instead of hiding in the closet has said, basically, “I’m Gay. So what? I really want to talk about the city budget and all the cuts I want to make to balance it.” It’s also the base of openly Gay Right-wing talk-show host Steve Yuhas, who was driven from the local Queer press for his inconvenient politics and now holds forth every Sunday night with a show expressing why he doesn’t think he should be expected to toe a liberal-Left line on both Queer and non-Queer issues just because his romantic and sexual interests lie with men. The American Right has long fought charges of racism and sexism by actively recruiting women and people of color to join its ranks — Phyllis Schlafly, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Armstrong Williams, Alan Keyes — and now it’s fighting back against accusations of homophobia by recruiting Right-wing Queers and giving them political and media exposure.
Whatever can be said against Outrage, the fact is that Kirby Dick is a master documentarian who has made a compelling movie. He’s done a good enough job of making his case that most of the reviewers have accepted his film at face value and not raised the questions I have above — namely, to what extent is “outing” carefully selected Right-wing Queer politicians driven by an ideological agenda that says Queers in public life have to believe, and work for, a strong set of liberal-Left values, including ideas with which they may not be comfortable? Also, to what extent does “outing” buy into the negative image of homosexuality its advocates say they’re trying to fight? As much as they say (in the film and elsewhere) that they’re not seeking to punish the “outed” for their homosexuality — only their “hypocrisy”— it’s a distinction that will be lost on many straight viewers of this movie who will see the “outers” as a group of unsmiling fanatics imposing ideological conformity on Queer politicians by threatening to embarrass them publicly over their sexual orientation if they don’t comply.
As much as I ordinarily can’t stand Andrew Sullivan, he really spoke for me when he said in this film that above all the Queer community should be a place where its members can feel protected and where their privacy can be respected. The film includes an archival clip of the late Harvey Milk urging Queer people to come out — but I really doubt that Milk meant that they should be dragged out forcibly; rather, he wanted to make people aware that both their community and they as individuals would be better off if they did so voluntarily. “Outing” strikes at the heart of our community; instead of watching each other’s backs and protecting each other against law-enforcement abuses and both Queer and straight predators, the vision of “outing” is one of a self-appointed group of ideological commissars imposing intellectual discipline on Queer public figures and saying, “Do what we want — or else.” You should definitely go see Dick’s film — but you should watch it with a critical eye and debate these issues on your way out of the theatre instead of uncritically accepting his black-and-white vision of them.
Outrage is tentatively scheduled to open Friday, June 5 at the Landmark Cinemas Hillcrest, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 819-0236 for showtimes and other information.