It was Time magazine that dreamed up the word "outing" back in 1990. Specifically, it was now-deceased William Henry III, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic for Time, who coined the term to define what he saw as a terrible invasion of privacy against even the most vile and homophobic closeted public figures by gay activists and gay journalists, and, most pointedly, by me.
Henry purposely chose a violent-sounding, active verb, and he had reason to. He'd long been rumored to be harboring his own secret. And 10 years ago, his wife confirmed to me in a published letter what Henry had kept from his millions of readers: He was bisexual. Yes, the man who came up with the word "outing" and harshly criticized -- demonized -- gay journalists for engaging in it was closeted himself. Talk about a conflict of interest.
I was an editor at the time at OutWeek magazine, and among other stories, I'd written a cover piece, "The Secret Gay Life of Malcolm Forbes," shortly after the multimillionaire's death, using multiple named and unnamed sources. I simply considered this "reporting" on a (dead) public figure. There wasn't a special word for bringing forth details on other aspects relevant to report about public figures, even if those public figures didn't want such facts reported -- from their tax returns and their business dealings to their latest girlfriends or boyfriends or their divorces -- so why a term for reporting that someone is gay or has same-sex relationships?
But Henry's "outing" stuck, and it's unfortunate because it still allows journalists to pontificate about a phenomenon, rather than do their jobs, which is simply to report. It allows them to distract and not take seriously an issue that, even in this day of much more acceptance, they're still squeamish about. The way it's been used in the past few days regarding GOP Congressman Aaron Schock has revealed the hypocrisy and fear of many in the Washington media. Schock has been the subject of gay rumors for years, rumors that have come up again and again.
Frankly, with a horrific record on LGBT rights -- a zero rating from the Human Rights Campaign, having voted against "don't ask, don't tell" repeal, and having said he supports a federal marriage amendment -- that means he should be asked the question again and again, for as long as new rumors keep surfacing. He should be investigated by journalists, again and again, for this alleged hypocrisy, until they can say for sure it absolutely, positively doesn't exist. But journalists in D.C. never seem to ask him the question (beyond the routine call to his press office and getting a "no comment"), though they see him in the halls of Congress and at every swanky cocktail party. Nor do they investigate it the way they scour every aspect of Ted Cruz's college years or look into Rand Paul's alleged bong hits.
I did ask Schock about those rumors at the Republican National Convention in 2012 when I had the chance, to which he replied that the question was "inappropriate and ridiculous" and not "worthy of further response," and he pointed to a previous denial, saying, "Look it up." That certainly didn't end the rumors and, like I said, it shouldn't stop other journalists from asking the question, and investigating, each time new rumors emerge.
Now the rumors have blown up again, and in the biggest way so far. Journalist Itay Hod wrote on his Facebook page that his friend walked in on a roommate and the congressman in his shower. Hod was inspired to write about that after reading a post on Americablog, "The 7 Gayest Aaron Schock Instagram Posts of 2013," which also noted that the newly-out diving champion Tom Daley was among the 71 people Schock followed.
Is any of that hard evidence? Of course not, and certainly there's no firsthand source by name. But is it interesting information for reporters and pundits to: a) speculate about, discuss, debate, rehash, spin, dig, and make phone calls about, as they do with so many other issues which might be true about public figures -- many of which are complete non-stories; and b) ask Aaron Shock about directly as he enters the halls of Congress, heads to the supermarket or turns up at the next cocktail party?
You better believe it.
Instead, we've seen holier-than-thou lectures about stereotyping people as gay, like this one on Buzzfeed, which is in on all the click-bait action -- complete with the photo and front-page placement -- while positioning itself as above it all. Or Slate's Dave Weigel, disappointingly taking a swipe at "the usual crop of SEO-engine-greasing sites" for covering the story while lauding "more tasteful outlets, like Buzzfeed," under the big photo and headline, "What If a Republican Congressman Got Outed and Nobody Cared?" This was the second time in the past few weeks that Slate ran a piece about an outing that supposedly wasn't really important enough for anyone to care about, but which Slate still had to ask the question about, complete with the photo. The last one was, "Why Did Gawker Out Shepard Smith?" If outing stories are so unimportant and have no effect, or shouldn't be reported, why do they all keep writing about them?
Then we had Time magazine this week, which, 24 years after coining the term, is now "Outing the Hypocrisy of Outing," and still using a queer writer to discipline those other, bad gays. (Yes, some things never change.) Writer Brandon Ambrosino approvingly quotes David Carr from The New York Times, back when Carr, too, scolded Gawker for reporting on Shepard Smith: "Now that gay marriage is a fact of life, a person's sexual orientation is not only not news, it's not very interesting." (For more on the sad apologias of Ambrosino, please see my Gay Voices colleague Noah Michelson laying out the facts.) That point, in this context, is pretty ridiculous because political hypocrisy is always news, and always interesting.
The Carr quote brings us back to The New York Times, which did no fewer than three stories about outing a few weeks ago within a one-week period, two of which focused on why outing was not important or necessary or having impact, one of which plastered Shepard Smith's face in the article under the word "outing." (Steve Petrow's "Civil Behavior" column, thankfully, countered the other two rather silly pieces.) And the Times' Carr had the gall to say that Gawker is the one "obsessed" with the issue.
Come on, guys. If these stories don't matter or aren't appropriate or have no impact, why is the Aaron Schock story now getting millions of page views everywhere, why has it blown up on social media and getting a huge response among LGBT people, why has Schock locked down his Instagram account, and why has he suddenly stopped following Tom Daley? And why do you keep covering it and every other outing story that is supposedly inappropriate or irrelevant? You have to admit, it's a bit odd.
But hey, if you want some real click-bait, how about ending the pontificating and actually getting some spine and doing the story? At least Jonathan Capehart at The Washington Post is asking for sources with direct knowledge of Congressman Schock's sexual orientation to come forward -- and he even gave out his email for people to send him information. That's a start, and I hope a challenge to the rest of the Beltway media.