Guess Who’s Gay?

The politics of outing

Back in the late 1980s, Michelangelo Signorile, a popular writer and gay activist who now hosts his own radio show on Sirius XM Radio’s OutQ channel, got into hot water over the magazine he founded OutWeek. After outing notable celebrities in the controversial publication, including Malcolm Forbes, Liz Smith and David Geffen, Signorile was both praised and reviled by folks within and outside the gay community. The magazine may have folded years ago, but the outing controversy has hardly lost any momentum.

On the heels of Carrie Fisher repeatedly calling John Travolta gay in the media – and after Ricky Gervais made several references to gay Scientologists at the Golden Globes on Sunday – the issue of whether it’s acceptable to “accuse” anyone of being gay or lesbian is still up for debate.

Political activists often use outing as a way to showcase a legislator’s hypocrisy when voting anti-gay. The film Outrage discusses these issues with those who have had same-sex sexual relationships with famously conservative politicians. Sen. Larry Craig was a target even before his bathroom arrest for supposedly soliciting sex from an other man in an airport. And while even people who may be anti-outing in theory might see value in calling out politicians who repeatedly and publicly work against gay rights, is it really fair to drag anyone’s personal preferences into the spotlight? And does outing somehow suggest that being gay or lesbian is a dirty thing?

Proponents of outing say no, and that a “good” reason for breaking open closet doors – particularly those belonging to famous people – shows the world that the most beloved actors, musicians, politicians, news anchors and other leaders are, in fact, gay. But does it matter whether someone like Ricky Martin is gay? Does that make any difference for his fans? What about Anderson Cooper? Would his coming out change the way he reports the news?

Yes and no. Certainly gay fans might find some comfort in knowing that a favorite pop star is playing for their team, but mainstream audiences (presumable heterosexual ones) have been known to be pretty fickle when it comes to accepting gay superstars from all walks of life. When Clay Aiken came out as being gay, his Christian and more conservative fans seemed to be shocked. It’s as if they viewed Aiken as a kind of harmless, white bread answer to music before he talked about being gay. After coming out, his record sales plummeted and popularity waned.

Lady Gaga, on other hand, capitalized on the rumors about her gender and sexuality, admitting she’s bisexual and reaching out to gay fans and speaking up about gay issues. For Gaga, it’s meant record gold given many of her fans are, in fact, gay. Not so sure she would enjoy the same success if her fans came from more conservative corners of the world.

But what would happen if a mainstream star with box office or music chart appeal swung open the closet door? Would he or she have any chance of maintaining a career? Or what about a politician? More and more openly gay candidates are running and winning offices around the country. Does being gay mean that the mainstream may fall out of love?

There are many in Hollywood, the music industry, on the news and on Capitol Hill who are rumored to be gay – a quick Google search will tell you who’s who. But many have opted to live under the radar as far as sexuality is concerned. In the wake of gay suicides and bullying, is it right for anyone to stay in the closet if it means making a difference in the way the world views gays and lesbians? Hard to say. But one thing is clear: Outing isn’t going away any time soon. As gay issues spend more time in the headlines, rest assured that many more famous faces will be outed – whether they like it or not.

Weigh in on the debate: Is outing okay? Share your opinions with G Philly.