The Reader‘s J.R. Jones sparked a lively discussion two weeks ago with his review of Outrage, a new documentary about closeted pols with antigay agendas. I weighed in myself, not letting the fact I hadn’t seen the movie stop me. Then I headed over to the Music Box with my wife to see the film.
As I was drawn into it I began to wonder if it had knowingly been constructed around the principle of the unreliable narrator. So let me propose that Kirby Dick accomplished what he set out to do—and that was to make a film more subtle and complex than it seems. Right in the middle of his movie is the moment when somebody (forgive me for not recalling who) recounts—with some glee—outing an up-and-coming young Fox newsman. This wasn’t a public official whose voting record punished gay Americans. He was just a pretty face on TV working for the wrong network. The vulgarity of that moment washed forward and backward and called more than itself into question. I’m willing to believe it wasn’t there by accident.
In other words, Outrage presents a case for outing that it isn’t totally committed to. Before seeing the movie I was uneasy about two arguments for outing that I’d seen Jones’s critics make. To my discomfort, the first was introduced right at the top of the film. In any context “It’s for their own good” is a pernicious justification, and this context is no exception. But it exists in Outrage as a sentiment that Dick doesn’t endorse. As impressive as former New Jersey governor James McGreevey and former Arizona congressman Jim Kolbe are when they talk about the blessings of coming out of the closet and leading honest lives, I didn’t see them urging the filmmakers to force other closeted politicians to enjoy the same blessings. Imagine a scene in which Kolbe, after saying he felt 40 years younger after he came out, is asked to name other gay congressmen. Kolbe would probably have refused to cooperate, and the moment would have thrown an interesting light across the movie. Dick doesn’t give us that moment, but I think such a light flickers regardless, if dimly.
The other argument for outing that the movie offers is that closeted public figures have it coming because they’re hypocrites. The movie denounces hypocrisy, but it’s clear Dick knows the issue’s not that simple. Consider the language playwright Tony Kushner put in Roy Cohn’s mouth in Angels in America, which Dick puts in his movie: “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual man. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys. . . . Homosexuals are men who in 15 years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me?”
That’s not hypocrisy; it’s denial. And the impression left by so many of the allegedly closeted officials on display—and by McGreevey and Kolbe in their reflections—is less of mendacity than of torment. Is it simply hypocritical to tell yourself that although you’ve succumbed to something so shameful you cannot speak its name, you will gallantly oppose it in every way you can, including with your votes? Yes, to someone punished by those votes “hypocrisy” is a word that will quickly come to mind. But it doesn’t begin to completely describe the psychological processes at work and Dick knows it.
The ethics of outing seem clearest when Outrage simply puts a face on a screen and says this person relentlessly voted no, no, no, no, and again no to bills written to improve the lives of gays. (When the film said one congressman had supported gay rights legislation only 28 percent of the time, I wondered what that 28 percent consisted of—the number seemed surprisingly high to me.) Politics ain’t beanball, and if your opponent won’t give you a break you try to take him out. That I get. But don’t tell me you’re taking him out for his own sake, or because he’s a hypocrite and blessed are the truth tellers. No one trusts people whose justification for what they do boils down to their being more virtuous than their enemies—and to the extent that Outrage frames outers as people like that it’s undermining them.
There’s a slippery feel to the movie: the way it bounces around among the various pols it outs makes it hard to keep track of the evidence against each of them. The movie ends on an ominous note—showing Governor Charles Crist newly married and more dangerous than ever—but I walked out of the theater trying to remember why I was supposed to be so sure Crist was gay in the first place. My wife scratched her head and suggested, “Remember what that woman he dated said—’Ask me in ten years.'” That’s what I remembered too, and it won’t do. Crist’s history of bachelorhood, the persistent rumors, his supposedly telltale style of batting away questions—it’s evidence that won’t cut it in court. But that’s the case against Crist the movie offers.
Yet for all that, I felt justice had been done to its bleak and tangled subject. Without going so far as to actually debate outing it had recognized that outers are playing with fire, and it didn’t demand that we admire them. As they asserted, “Everybody knows,” compelling me to respond, “But that’s not evidence!” the film made homosexuality in Washington a secret so dark it felt to me like a crime. I walked out more troubled and angry than anything else—and not at Outrage, despite my issues with it.