It's been widely reported that Amazon's Jeff Bezos weighed in on billionaire Peter Thiel and his crusade to destroy Gawker essentially because he's angry that the website focused on the fact that he is gay back in 2007. Bezos, responding to a question about the Gawker case at a conference, referred to an old quote, "Seek revenge and you will dig two graves - one for yourself." But, though he made clear he wasn't addressing Thiel's case in particular, Bezos also offered great advise for Thiel, and frankly, for many other public figures, including Hollywood celebrities and politicians, regarding media reporting about sexual orientation.
Last week in writing about the revelation that Thiel was funding the lawsuit against Gawker by Hulk Hogan, I noted that Thiel wasn't "outed'' by Gawker in 2007 when it discussed his sexual orientation (as Thiel has claimed). As the reporter noted at the time, Thiel was a prominent public figure who'd been out to a wide circle in Silicon Valley, so he was reporting on something that was common knowledge -- and pointing to the ridiculousness of no one in the media discussing it.
As I've written before in more detail, the term "outing" was coined by a closeted, married, bisexual Time magazine critic back in 1990, using it pejoratively -- an active, violent-sounding verb -- to demonize the reporting on public figures' sexual orientation even when relevant to an important story. The term is a relic of the past, and needs to die. We don't have a word for reporting on any other fact about public figures. As a term used by journalists, the word "outing" stigmatizes what should essentially be called reporting, and it stigmatizes homosexuality itself as something so terrible it should not be revealed.
While anyone can remain a private citizen and keep details of his or her life private, public figures' lives, including the most influential and prominent titans of business among us, are open for dissection by the media. It comes with the territory of seeking public life, and that's certainly true from a legal perspective. Once one is in the public eye, the Supreme Court has affirmed, the First Amendment allows for truths to be reported about you.
Peter Thiel, as co-founder of Paypal and an early investor of Facebook, became a celebrated billionaire, and not a reclusive one at that. He's very public about his political leanings, his philanthropy, his funding of anti-aging research and many other projects and opinions. But obviously his sexual orientation is something he wanted to keep from being reported on, even though he was open about it to a wide circle. He can't have it both ways, and using his money now to exact revenge is an egregious abuse of power.
That's not to imply that Thiel, like many of us, didn't possibly have difficulties coming to terms with his sexual orientation. He grew up as an evangelical Christian, and perhaps he was even struggling with it regarding his family. That's all speculation, of course, but I can attest that many of us have been there. I grew up in a Catholic Italian family, and actually hadn't told my parents outright that I was gay before I became public as an AIDS activist 25 years ago. We didn't speak for months (though I'm happy to say they came to embrace me in a powerful way). But I didn't blame that on anyone but myself: I chose to go into public life and hadn't gotten my act together before I did that.
Peter Thiel became a billionaire, an influential person in a powerful industry, out in public as a gay person, known to many, dating and going to gay gatherings, socializing with gay people. It's not incumbent upon others in his life, even those tangentially in his life, to collude in his secret, especially if it means silencing themselves about their own lives -- and they may not even had thought of it or known of it as a secret. And it's not wrong for the media to report on it, nor, as I pointed out last week, do courts, increasingly, view it as defamatory even to falsely call someone gay.
And that's where Bezos' criticism and advice comes in. Again, though he was clear he wasn't directing it to Thiel's case specifically, he appears to believe that public figures have to deal with what comes with their status rather than think they can control the world.
"I would say that as a public figure, the best defense to speech that you don't like about yourself as a public figure is to develop a thick skin," Bezos said. "If you absolutely can't tolerate critics, then don't do anything new or interesting."
I can already see those condemning Bezos, a straight man, for treating the reporting on someone's sexual orientation so cavalierly, especially since even a Gawker defender in recent days (wrongly) called the supposed outing "cruel." But I think it actually attests to Bezos viewing the issue with an enlightened perspective, in a time when we're more open and accepting. Bezos is a prominent ally of LGBT equality, having spent millions to pass marriage equality in Washington State. He's not suggesting the issue isn't difficult, nor is he addressing how it might be for those in private life.
But as a public figure himself, he seems to view reporting on sexual orientation as no bigger a deal than any of the other details and facts that have been reported on about him and other public figures, whether they wanted them out there or not. And that's how it should be.