"I don't seek activity in bathrooms." Over the title credits, Sen. Larry Craig explains what transpired in that now-infamous men's room at the Minneapolis airport two years ago. Craig, a family-values hard-liner from Idaho, found himself caught up in the ongoing gay-or-not-gay public discussion, and is among the subjects of Kirby Dick's new documentary on closeted lawmakers.
Dick is the filmmaker who previously drew back the curtain on the questionable tactics of the MPAA movie-ratings organization in This Film Is Not Yet Rated. For its part, Outrage is more opinion essay than recitation of fact, and that's obvious from the very beginning. Accompanied by foreboding cello music, the opening intertitles read: "There exists a brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy to keep gay and lesbian politicians as closeted as possible. This conspiracy is so powerful the media will not cover it, even though it profoundly hurts many Americans."
So, does Dick make his case? Well, it sort of depends on whom you believe. If, like Dick, you believe that Craig and others, such as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, are closeted gay men acting against gay interests, then yes. But if, like the longtime Mrs. Craig or the freshly minted Mrs. Crist, you agree that these men are straight -- or at least that they deserve strict privacy -- then Dick doesn't offer much hard proof.
But if Dick is correct, his larger argument -- that closeted politicians cause incalculable harm to the larger gay community -- is not just true. It's also infuriating and depressing.
Dick examines a few notable campaigns to out prominent politicians including Craig, Crist and former New York Mayor Ed Koch. The focus isn't on the salacious, but on the broader concern that a secret sexual life can determine critical policy decisions. It's a reverse form of influence, Outrage argues, in which a closeted politician acts strenuously against gay interests.
Barney Frank, the openly gay U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, concurs. He says that people have "a right to privacy but not a right to hypocrisy," particularly if those people are in a position to affect the lives of others.
Few of the political outings detailed in the film occurred in the mainstream media. But Dick never looks too deeply at the established media's lack of investigation. Instead, much of the digging is done by reporters at alt weeklies or by bloggers, such as Michael Rogers of BlogActive. Rogers calls closeted law-makers "traitors" and sees his role as critical to exposing "individuals who are working against the community that they then expect to protect them."
While the gay community is not monolithic on such public revelations, Dick doesn't bring in any dissenters. Instead, his interview subjects, who include longtime gay-right activists, cite the watershed nature of the 1980s AIDS crisis. Prior to that, gay individuals implicitly had a right to privacy, which in theory could keep them safe from persecution, discrimination and even prosecution. But after AIDS, explains Rodger McFarland, the former executive director of the Gay Men's Health Crisis, closeted gays -- particularly those in positions of power -- were "colluding with genocide by failing to respond to the public-health crisis."
Today, the push for new legislation more often involves issues such as gay marriage, parental rights and wider anti-discrimination protections. If these seem dry policy compared to the days of furious Act Up street theater, consider that the actions of a key few may still have wide-ranging consequences: It was Republican strategist Ken Mehlman, the frequent subject of "gay" whispers, who made the anti-gay-marriage issue the hallmark of the 2004 presidential campaign.
By film's end, Dick has made his point pretty clearly: Being closeted only perpetuates the sense of shame and fear, and leads to more closets. He quotes Harvey Milk, who three decades ago posited that "if every gay person would come out," the stigma would collapse.
On a macro level, Outrage argues, the closet engenders a defensive "straight act" that not only stymies gay rights but drums up further prejudice for cynical political gain. For the closeted individual, it's a fraught, unfulfilled double life where each action is parsed between "who I really am" and "how I should appear." No wonder a simple trip to the men's room can become a front-page, life-destroying catastrophe.
Starts Fri., June 19. Harris