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« Kristen Wiig's Awards Bait: 'Crying in a Sweater' | Main | London is Magic. »
Wednesday
Oct282015

HBO’s LGBT History: Outrage (2009)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions.

Last week we revisited Carrie & co. in their silver screen outings. As it turns out, the Sarah Jessica Parker series continues to elicit strong reactions though the films are, across the board, considered lesser versions of the oft-brilliant HBO show. This week, we look at Kirby Dick’s doc Outrage which navigates the tricky issue of outing closeted gay politicians. The doc aired on HBO in October 2009 after a Tribeca bow and a limited release earlier that year.

“There is nothing more public than privacy.”

I quote this Michael Warner gem almost every day. Usually to myself; it’s a mantra that perfectly captures many of the discussions about the LGBT community in the twenty-first century. It gets at the inherent and insidious privilege of privacy; it’s always those who don’t realize how their own “private life” (dating, family, marriage) is inherently public (coughMattDamoncough) who claim to want to keep it away from public view. Warner’s epigram could very well function as an apt tag-line for Kirby’s film (though “Do Ask. Do Tell” has a delightful campy, gossipy tone that’s a brilliant reworking of the militaryspeak it echoes).

The issue of privacy is central to Kirby’s film, which follows the stories of various closeted politicians like Larry Craig, Charlie Crist, David Dreier, the late Ed Koch, and Ken Mehlman. One should add “alleged” though the film doesn’t really attempt to hedge its own accusations, preferring instead to let the various scandals, non-denials, and a roster of witnesses (anonymous and otherwise), stand in as self-evident truths. What fuels these outings is the conviction that the inherent homophobia of the closet has pushed certain secretly gay politicians to promote anti-gay legislation; in essence, the argument goes, outing them merely reveals their hypocrisy as well as their privilege in living a life that exempts them from being subject to the laws they help pass.

This is far from a personal matter when, as Outrage points out, closeted gay men have been at the forefront of some of the most damning historical moments for gay men, from the McCarthy witch hunts (Roy Cohn) to the Reagan administration’s lack of action during the AIDS crisis (Ed Koch). Their inaction comes from a carefully elaborated defense mechanism. It’s the schoolyard all over again. You bully the other gay kid so that you won’t be picked on and be found out yourself. But over time, it develops into a fascinating “cognitive dissonance” that, as Tony Kushner dramatizes in a scene from Angels in America that Kirby includes in his doc, can be quite alluring:

“Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words. On labels. ‘Gay,’ ‘homosexual,’ ‘lesbian’; you think they tell you who a person sleeps with, but they don't tell you that. Like all labels, they refer to one thing and one thing only: Where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? In the pecking order. Not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simpler — clout. Who owes me favors. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call. To someone who doesn't understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can't get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council.”

The politics of outing are necessarily combative. On the one hand, there’s the agreed-upon notion that coming out is a deeply personal and private matter and that to rob, even a public figure, of such a process is ethically dubious at best and morally despicable at worst. In the film, Andrew Sullivan espouses this very position. On the other hand, as many of Kirby’s other talking heads point out, that type of privilege should indeed be rescinded when those in the public eye go to great lengths to hide their own sexuality even as they help perpetuate a cultural climate that reassures them that their own choice of staying in the closet is the right one, by crafting, voting, and passing laws that demonize gay men and women. Those who collude and maintain glass closets in Washington are only furthering a homophobic environment.

Kirby’s film, clearly armed with an agenda, does a solid job of laying down both these arguments I’ve sketched as well as plenty of damning evidence about the politicians it covers. Its most earnest and perhaps touching moments come courtesy of those who have, as it were, crossed to the other side: former governor of New Jersey James McGreevey is particularly eloquent in what drove him to stay in the closet for so long, including marrying a woman who, even in her interviews with Kirby’s team, seems unable to make peace with how the choices of such an obvious victim of internalized homophobia could so obviously derail her own life in the process. Even six years after Outrage, the conversation about outing celebrities and politicians remains, proving that despite progress, there is still plenty to be done. Let us not forget that awful, misguided Gawker outing debacle from a few months back, and the various stories swirling around former congressman Aaron Schock.

 Fun Awards Fact: Despite being one of the most high profile LGBT docs released that year, Outrage failed to garner a nomination at the GLAAD Media Awards. Not (or not just?) because it wasn’t seen as an outstanding doc (awards are, after all, always subjective), but because, as the organisation put in a statement, the film “does not fit the criteria of the GLAAD Media Awards” which, in their own words is “about elevating and promoting the fair, accurate and inclusive stories of LGBT issues, people and allies that have increased awareness, understanding and respect for our lives and our pursuit of equality.” Needless to say, Kirby wasn’t pleased by the language of the statement which, in his view played “into the same philosophy that has kept the closet in place in politics for decades and has caused so much damage.”

Next week: Since everyone seemed so keen to discuss Grey Gardens (a decidedly gay film despite, though of course, because, of its ostensibly straight subjects), I figured, why not? So, let’s keep the Halloween spirit going a bit longer and spend some time deciding what your best costume of the day is, and talk about the HBO film based on the classic Maysles’s documentary of the same name.

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Reader Comments (4)

Outrage allowed GLAAD to out themselves as the brown-nosing bootlickers to the powers that be that they are. And never forget that NPR also revealed what cowards THEY were when they banned all discussion of the movie even on their website. You'd think the movie was some recklessly incendiary agitprop, instead of the dispassionate well-researched excellent film it is. Outrage is essential viewing.

October 28, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterken s

It's a very good doc. I didn't know anything about that GLAAD Awards controversy. I'm shocked by their statement. The blindness!

October 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I don't recall the GLAAD outrage over OUTRAGE, but it makes sense given the sort of organisation that tend to be.

Yet again, a wonderful right up. I remember liking this film a lot.

October 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

perhaps the GLAAD is also full of closeted gays, hence denying this great docuemtary a nimination! millions live with double standars ( at their conveniecne off course! )

October 7, 2017 | Unregistered Commenteralice

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