Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Outrage: closeted gay politicians, Elizabeth Birch, and queer challenges to the status quo

Earlier tonight I went to a preview screening of the movie Outrage, “a searing exposé of the secret lives of closeted gay politicians.” More than an exposé of those secret lives, the movie serves to focus on hypocrisy of closeted politicians who dedicate themselves to perfecting their right-wing voting records. There are definitely many striking moments in the movie, starting with the recording of Larry Craig at the very beginning, declaring to the cops, “I don’t seek activity in bathrooms,” and then a later press conference called by Craig where you can hear someone yelling “come on Larry be gay,” followed by someone who went home with Craig from a DC strip club a while back quoting Craig as handing him a $20 bill and saying, “just remember I can buy and sell your ass 1000 times.”

Of course, Larry Craig has already been thrown off his, um… throne, and the same could be said of many of the other politicians “exposed” in the movie, from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch to key officials in the Reagan administration. In other words, no new names are necessarily named, with the possible exception of current Florida Governor Charlie Crist, whose gay exploits have been covered in alternative media sources but never something with this much potential audience.

What struck me more than the analysis of the hypocrisy of elected officials, closeted or otherwise, was the neverending parade of gay establishment figures, from right to center but never further left than gay radio host Michelangelo Signorile, a dubious figure at best (although responsible for much of the media attention around outing closeted gay celebrities in the early ‘90s, he was also one of the people to spearhead vitriolic attacks on public sex venues in New York in the mid-‘90s). Other than BlogActive’s Michael Rogers (current specialist in outing closeted politicians), we’re treated to an endless array of gay elite figureheads including former director of HRC Elizabeth Birch, gay conservative standardbearer Andrew Sullivan, at least two prominent Log Cabin Republicans, Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff, as well as a few resuscitated figures like Larry Kramer, still proclaiming that gay people “have no rights” in spite of the considerable rights he’s always had, and a more engaged Rodger McFarlane, former head of the Gill Foundation.

While many of these gay establishment individuals are quite capable of talking about Republican homophobia, their analysis doesn’t go much further. Elizabeth Birch excoriates Mary Cheney for her role in (successfully) target-marketing the famously right-wing Coors to gay and lesbian consumers, but there’s no one on screen to shred Elizabeth Birch for her glamorous role in shepherding the gaysbian agenda as far to the right as possible. Instead, we get another shot of Birch telling us that members of Congress have literally cried in her arms because they feel like they can’t come out -- how sweet of her to hold them (and their secrets)!

During the Q&A, director Kirby Dick talked about how he was exposing the culture war that right-wing Republicans are fomenting. I said: “you do a good job of exposing that culture war, but I believe there’s another culture war going on inside gay and queer cultures, between a narrow agenda of marriage and military inclusion, and a broader abolitionist agenda of sexual liberation and universal access to basic needs like housing and healthcare, and in the movie it seems that pretty much every gay person falls more or less to the right or center of this divide, and I wonder if your focus on these establishment figures also indicates a stance in this culture war.”

Dick responded that no, this didn’t indicate his position, but rather it was a strategic choice not to go too far to the left so as not to be dismissed. In this sense, Dick has already been successful -- he was featured in a 12 minute CNN story, and will soon be on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, both media opportunities that he would probably not have been granted if the movie centered less around outed former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey telling us about his revelation that “this is who God made me,” or former president of the Log Cabin Republicans Patrick Guerriero revealing that “the closet suffocates the integrity of decent people.” Of course, we know that Elizabeth Birch and Patrick Guerriero (or Jim McGreevey) are not interested in creating space for a diversity of queer challenges to the status quo, but it feels hypocritical to avoid voicing broader critiques in a movie supposedly centered around accountability.


Hilary Goldberg said...

I'm glad you asked that question. It never ceases to be disheartening that broader worldview perspectives/positioning relegates work away from media coverage. It makes me feel like the art has been compromised, and your question highlighted that as -- in fact it had. And then what is the function of art if it has to decide upfront not to look at everything to be a more "welcomed" piece of work?


mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Exactly -- if the work is already compromised, then what exactly is the point of getting it out there?

Love --

Larry-bob said...

Echoing Hilary, glad you asked that question.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Thank you, Larry-bob :)

Love --