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No, Peter Thiel Didn't Win Any War Against 'Outing' -- And He Never Will

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., July 21 2016.   REU
Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., July 21 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Billionaire PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel succeeded in destroying Gawker. But if he believes that he's done anything to stop the reporting on public figures' sexual orientation -- and he has couched his crusade against Gawker, backing the lawsuit by Hulk Hogan, as one against the so-called "outing" of himself by Gawker, and thus the future "outing" of others -- he is living in a fantasy world.

As the saying goes -- and certainly it's one they abide by in Thiel's Silicon Valley -- "you can't stop progress." And "outing" like it or not (and if not, it's probably in part based on your misunderstanding of it), is progress.

This is at once a simple and complicated issue -- complicated mostly because of the way the terms have for years been defined and framed within mainstream media, so I'm going to ask you to stick with me here. And please put aside for the moment the horrendous, lurid Daily Beast article revealing the sexual activity of Olympic athletes on hook-up apps from week before last, because it really doesn't apply here, and I'll explain why.

As many who've read my work for years know, I reject the Time magazine-fabricated term "outing" (a supposed practice which I've also been falsely described as somehow inventing), for several reasons, but more on that in a few minutes. For the sake of the first part of this argument, however, let's accept the term. You'll then be hard-pressed to disagree with this statement: As homosexuality has become, and will continue to become, more accepted, "outing" (or, revealing in the course of journalism) public figures' sexual orientation -- gay, lesbian or bisexual -- will become more accepted, and routine.

The two are inextricably linked.

When there are fewer and fewer -- to no -- ramifications for public figures to be known as gay or bisexual, it will be no big deal to report on gay or bisexual sexual orientation with regard to public figures whether they've stated it publicly themselves or not. In many areas -- and certainly in Silicon Valley -- that has already happened.

We can compare this to religion -- something that, like homosexuality, is not often overtly noticeable unless someone denotes it with adornment of some sort -- and see the same thing has happened over time. For example, let's look at being Jewish. At one time in this country's history, Jewish business people, performers and other public figures changed their names for the sake of their careers, as a virulent, violent anti-Semitism was rampant. Respectable, objective media abided by this closet. Certainly in Europe, and particularly in Germany in the early part of the 20th century, it was a life or death matter. No one would argue with anyone closeting the fact of being a Jew, and any decent person would vilify a journalist who revealed even a public figure as Jewish amid that dangerous landscape.

But that has changed. No media organization today in America would be chastised for reporting that a public figure is Jewish or has Jewish ancestry if relevant to a larger story, even if the individual hadn't publicly acknowledged it. Anti-Semitism, like homophobia, of course still exists, and it's utopian to believe we will eradicate such biases completely over a relatively short period of time. But a tipping point does become reached at least on reporting on it.

It's different, however, for private individuals, as opposed to public figures, people who decided to go into public life and open their lives to dissection by the media. It is both wrong and not legal for your employer to ask about your religion -- whether you are Christian, or Hindu or Buddhist or a non-believer, for example -- if you are private individual, and it should be the same about sexual orientation. It is not relevant to your job, opens up your employer to a bias charge, and you've chosen to retain your life as a private individual, not going into public life where the First Amendment applies differently.

Now let's get to Peter Thiel, a prominent businessman actively engaged in the public political discussion and backing political candidates, such as Ted Cruz (in the past) and Donald Trump (now), politicians who themselves have public positions about homosexuality that make Thiel's sexual orientation interesting and relevant. I've explained in a previous post why Thiel wasn't "outed." He was out and open within a wide circle, having parties, attending parties, at which he was known as gay, open to many in the Silicon Valley business community and media when the Gawker site reported on him.

He even admitted this in an op-ed in The New York Times last week, noting he was out already to people but was still in the process of coming out to more when this supposedly terrible "outing" by Gawker occurred. And thus, to him, it was wrong: It should be he who decides when the media report on his sexual orientation, no matter how public he is about it to many around him.

But this idea promotes a kind of homosexual exceptionalism -- and, ironically, a sort of culture of victimology that one doesn't expect from a self-described libertarian conservative like Thiel. Just about every other issue, from a public figure's private business dealings to his or her heterosexual relationships (and thus identity), is reported on when relevant -- not when the public figure decides the media should report on it. And Thiel makes it sound as if 2007 in Silicon Valley, when he was reported on as gay by the Gawker site, was like the 1950s for gays in America, let alone like Nazi Germany for Jews in the 1930s. Come on.

In that Times piece, Thiel compared himself to the Olympic athletes whose sexual behavior on Grindr was revealed by Daily Beast reporter Nico Hines, who went on the hook-up app and entrapped them into giving intimate details of the sex they sought and made them easily identifiable. But, as I wrote last week in slamming that ugly piece, there is no comparison. Not only were these athletes, many competing for the first time, not public figures in the sense that Thiel is, but this wasn't about their sexual orientation -- we still don't know how they identify -- it was about sex acts. And while there might be a case for a story in which actual sexual acts and interests may be relevant, it certainly wasn't relevant in this case.

No one ever revealed Peter Thiel's very private, intimate sexual interests -- what acts he likes best, etc. -- and I'd be the first to defend him if someone did so with no reason whatsoever. But sexual orientation is about who you are, how you see the world and how you identify, not about your private sexual activity. And if you are public about it as a public person to a wide circle it should be something reportable.

That is why I've rejected the term "outing." It was coined by a biased man with a conflict of interest in 1990, Time magazine critic William Henry III, whose wife wrote me after his death to tell me he was a bisexual and known to be so by those around him and by her. He created a violent-sounding, active verb --"outing" -- in writing about my work at the time (I'd reported on the sexual orientation of multi-millionaire Malcolm Forbes after he died) to describe something that should simply be called "reporting."

Commentators have in recent days pointed out distortions, contradictions and inconsistencies in Thiel's Times piece. For example, he claimed that bipartisan legislation in Congress was inspired by the Hogan case, meant to take on "revenge porn"and was dubbed the Gawker Bill. But the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jackie Spiers (D-Calif) pushed back, stating the Intimate Privacy Protection Act was not introduced with the Hogan case or revenge porn in mind, and isn't nicknamed the Gawker Bill.

Similarly, the Hulk Hogan case had nothing to do with sexual orientation but rather was about sexual activity and, as Spiers noted, is a complicated media story. For Thiel to equate it with his supposed "outing" is disingenuous. As I wrote, Thiel would be laughed out of court if he tried to sue Gawker for reporting on his sexual orientation, which is protected under the First Amendment. So, he waited for a case in which to exact his revenge, and he got it.

But if his goal is to stop the reporting or speculation about public figures' sexual orientation he should look back to see that there was hardly outrage when his sexual orientation was reported on -- unlike the Daily Beast story from two weeks ago about the sexual activity of athletes, which rightly caused outrage -- or look across the Internet and see many celebrities and public figures reported on or speculated about, and few people are expressing outrage. That will only continue, and that's progress.