The ethics of “outing”

Breaking the silence code on homosexuality

Why should the homosexuality of a famous person be considered a taboo subject when other personal matters are considered fair game?

By Gabriel Rotello

Gabriel Rotello is editor of OutWeek in New York, NY.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 2 (May 1990), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

When I decided to put “The Secret Gay Life of Malcolm Forbes” on the cover of OutWeek, I was conscious of violating a longstanding rule: The homosexuality of public figures is strictly a private matter, to be ignored or even deliberately covered up by the press.

Both the mainstream and the gay press had always adhered to that rule. But since last summer a debate had been growing within the gay and lesbian press on the ethics of disclosing the sexuality of famous gays. A new word was coined, “outing”, as in dragging gay people “out of the closet.”

Traditionalists argued that “outing” was a cruel and unwarranted invasion of a public figure’s privacy and would divide our fragile community. But surprising new positions emerged.

Some argued that Malcolm Forbes-style public figures have already traded their privacy for fame and celebrity. Extramarital sex, abortion, drug and alcohol addiction, and embarrassing medical problems are often disclosed by a press eager to satisfy the voracious public appetite for gossip about the rich and famous. From supermarket tabloids and “unauthorized” biographies to major news stories concerning private sexual lives of people like Gary Hart and Jimmy Swaggart, little is left to the public’s imagination. Newspaper editors, TV producers and the public seem to agree with the Supreme Court that, no matter how embarrassing, if a story about a public figure is true, and if the public is interested, it’s printable.

The major exception to all this celebrity openness, some gays argued, is homosexuality. In that case, the old pre-60s self-censorship still applies.

See no evil about celebrities, and certainly write none.

Some maintained that this creates the impression that homosexuality is, in effect, the worst thing in the world. After all, if you can write about extramarital affairs, abortion, a first lady’s drug problem, or a rock star’s penchant for beating his wife, but you can’t write about Malcolm Forbes’s sexual orientation, what other implication could there be?

Some at OutWeek pointed out that the late-60s social shift concerning issues like out-of-wedlock relationships and abortion occurred only after the press began being honest about those subjects as they pertained to public figures. As the press became more open, taboos were weakened.

Negative concepts like “out-of-wedlock” relationships eventually grew into positive ones like “domestic partnership.” But the persistent code of silence surrounding famous gays was impeding a similar reevaluation of anti-gay prejudice.

Also, social workers pointed out that gay teens grow up without support networks of parents, relatives or even “out” gay and lesbian friends. Such kids, who are taught the lie that gays are pathetic, sad and hopeless, desperately need positive role models. Despite the fact that thousands of society’s most famous, respected and successful people are gay, gay kids grow up without that knowledge.

The combined force of these arguments convinced me that “outing”, in a compassionate but determined form, was justifiable, ethical and desirable. It was a radical shift for me, and I tested it in debates, but my new conviction stood.

So when our features editor, Michelangelo Signorile, proposed a “gay bio” of the recently deceased Malcolm Forbes, I agreed. His sources were numerous and credible, the issue was a serious one, and no public figure had invited closer scrutiny of his private life than Malcolm Forbes. Going ahead with the story was sure to spark a lively debate.

I was nonetheless surprised by the vehemence and intensity of the subsequent press reaction. Virtually every TV news program examined the issue, often interviewing me or other OutWeek editors with marked hostility. Few of them would allow us to mention Forbes by name. On CNN’s “Crossfire” I had to do an elaborate verbal dance to avoid naming Forbes, until an extremely conservative guest, claiming to be aghast at the concept of “outing”, named him anyway.

The New York Times printed two pieces on the controversy, one a news article, the other a surprisingly favorable op-ed piece, but both referred to Forbes only as a “famous, deceased millionaire.” The Chicago Tribune did the same. Yet the LA Times, the wire services and many local papers named Forbes openly.

The New York Daily News castigated us for “sensationalism” and for unseemly disrespect for a dead man’s memory. But a few weeks later after a famous movie star died, their screaming front-page headline read, “GARBO’S LAST DARK DAYS; Booze, butts, hazy nights for reclusive film goddess.” They apparently missed the double standard in discussing the “boozy” last days of a woman who only wanted to be left alone, while deliberately suppressing a gay publicity hound’s amorous adventures.

One thing’s for sure: The supermarket tabloids, often first to push the limits of journalism, responded quickly. Within weeks of our Forbes story, grocery stores across the nation were ablaze with headlines like: “MY LESBIAN LOVE AFFAIR WITH KRISTY MCNICHOL” and “RICHARD CHAMBERLAIN IS GAY!”

Thus, a major journalistic taboo against openness and honesty concerning gays and lesbians has broken down, at least at the check-out line. And it seems possible that the mainstream press may soon follow. While the immediate consequences of “outing” may cause embarrassment for some prominent gays, the ultimate result can only benefit us all — gay and straight alike.

 

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