Outing in Politics

What happens when candidates are forced out and just plain come out

Chris Dietz could join Brian Sims as one of the first openly gay legislators in Pennsylvania come Nov. 6 (photos courtesy of The Victory Fund).

In 2012, there are more gay and lesbian legislators in the U.S. than ever. And as more openly LGBT candidates seek office during this election (PA is poised to elect its first openly gay legislator out of Philly and possibly even a second from Central PA on Nov. 6), sexuality may not have played much of any role in the debates, but it’s definitely on the minds of candidates and voters alike.

But what happens when a candidate uses his opponent’s sexuality to attract votes? We’ve seen several oh-so-gay political scandals in recent years (remember Jim McGreevey and Larry “wide stance” Craig?). Now, in Alabama, Democratic State Rep. Daniel Boman may not have raised much if any money for his Congressional bid, reports AL.com, but he took to Facebook to out his opponent U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, a Republican who’s been in office for eight terms.

“Who would you vote for on November 6, 2012, between the following two candidates: 1.) A Republican who is a homosexual who has a voting record of voting against all homosexual legislation,” wrote Boman. “Further, this particular homosexual congressman has all homosexuals working on his congressional staff, or 2.) A Democrat who is a straight male, but has no voting record for or against homosexual legislation.”

The article reports that Boman had been a Republican for many years until breaking from his party. He’s also said that being gay should disqualify a candidate from holding office. So his reference to supporting LGBT issues is really lost here – especially considering that he’s using it to slander his opponent who, by most polls, is expected to win in a landslide. Most everyone also still seems to think he’s quite straight.

But it begs an important question – is outing ever acceptable in politics?

Outrage kicked down closet doors in D.C. politics when it first screened three years ago.

A few prominent gay activists have said they would be willing to out someone who consistently votes against LGBT rights. The documentary Outrage from a few years ago went after legislators that the film’s director claimed were/are gay but who vote anti-gay. And while he tends to use anecdotal “evidence” to prove his point (rumors and gossip about trysts mostly) it does challenge a certain level of legislative hypocrisy by blasting open closet doors and publicizing the private.

The problem with outing is that even when it’s done with best intentions – it tends to suggest an air of dirtiness. It makes being gay seem like a seedy, back-alley thing that could ruin someone’s career. One might get the same uneasy feeling when celebrities, accused of having gay affairs (Tom Cruise and John Travolta), sue tabloids and accusers to “maintain their good name.” Good, bad, what’s the big deal? Really? I’d be more offended to be accused of being (gasp) a Scientologist.

The good news is that a documentary like Outrage (while fascinating on so many levels when it comes to going behind the scenes of D.C. politics – really, see it) may have actually lost steam in recent years – but not because there are no more gay and lesbian politicos out there. But because more legislators have come out on their own to stand up for the issues they believe in and that impact their own lives and community. In this election season alone, there are a record number of out candidates like Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin (Paul Ryan’s home state – snap!), Mark Takano in California (he’s a gay Asian-American), Jared Polis in Colorado and David Cicilline in Rhode Island. Richard Tisei, a hot prospect for the Massachusetts house is also gay – and a Republican.

Dan Miller could become Harrisburg's openly gay mayor.

The candidates – and their level of diversity – is remarkable and admirable (even if the Log Cabins did endorse Romney – come on, guys). And in many races, the gay issue has been trumped by a wealth of concerns these men and women are more than capable of addressing – like jobs, the economy, education and healthcare. Voters by most accounts seem to care a lot more about what these prospects stand for rather than who they sleep with. And that, folks, is progress.

The Victory Fund has even endorsed a record-breaking 175 openly LGBT candidates, including eight in U.S. House and Senate races, and 97 state legislative candidates in 30 states, and dozens more at the municipal, county, judicial and school board levels. In Pennsylvania, Brian Sims doesn’t face opposition (he will, indeed, make history) and Chris Dietz – also openly gay – could join him. Dan Miller is also running for mayor of Harrisburg – he’s been the city controller for the past three years.

“For the first time ever, LGBT Americans could have an authentic voice in the U.S. Senate and a record-high number of openly LGBT House members on both sides of the aisle,” says Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Victory Fund.

But did all this kinda, sorta evolve from outing? Perhaps. Or maybe something like outing gave candidates a chance to consider their legacies a little more closely. Because when it’s up to the history books, who wouldn’t rather be in charge of one’s own place in the order of things and work from the inside out? Who wouldn’t want to stand on the right side of history in a year that could go down as one of the most influential times for LGBT rights in our country? It is, after all, the year that the President of the United States (the first, to be sure) says he stands behind LGBT rights and issues of marriage equality. Now this is something to remember when we go to the polls in just 13 days, not who’s gay and who isn’t.