Out of This World Andrew Sullivan Exposes Homosexuals in a world that's Still Dangerous For them Last week, my old friend Andrew Sullivan published a New York Times Magazine piece asking why certain public figures don't just come right out and...come right out. He looked at Gore's campaign manager Donna Brazile, Ed Koch, Rosie O'Donnell, Ricky Martin and Richard Simmons, and presented evidence of their gayness that is as open-and-shut as any reader is likely to require. This was not, Sullivan said, to be confused with the 1980s practice of outing. "I don't believe in 'outing' people," he wrote. "But I don't believe in 'inning' them, either. I have no evidence that, say, Donna Brazile or Ricky Martin is gay or straight. But I do know that their studied avoidance of the subject, along with their eager divulgence of any number of other private matters, invites an obvious and legitimate question. And, yes, it is legitimate. "There comes a point, surely, at which the diminishing public stigmatization of homosexuality makes this kind of coyness not so much understandably defensive as simply feeble: insulting to homosexuals, who know better, and condescending to heterosexuals, who deserve better." If Sullivan isn't outing, then he's providing a functional substitute. Whether a coyness is "feeble," "insulting" or "condescending" is not the point. (Nor is it even necessarily "coyness.")Like anyone else, a gay person can?not must?say his sex life is none
of anyone's business. How is that "insulting" to homosexuals? And how do heterosexuals "deserve better"? I don't think I've ever met a heterosexual who has any opinions at all on outing?let alone a hair-trigger sensitivity to what he "deserves" from gays in the matter of disclosure.
Sullivan argues that Donna Brazile's unwillingness to talk about her sexuality makes no logical sense. If she's gay, he's right, for Brazile is a gay activist who eagerly mixes the personal and the political. Nor is she a respecter of anyone else's sexual privacy. (She was fired from the Dukakis campaign in '88 for spreading rumors that George Bush was having an extramarital affair.) But what if, arguendo, she's a-sexual? (Which is, as Bob Dole knows, the only sexual orientation our society views as truly disgraceful.) If Brazile?again, arguendo?doesn't know what her sexuality is, or has none to begin with, then it's Sullivan's argument that's illogical. Either that or it's simply cruel. His point makes sense only if he's outing her.
What to make of Sullivan's rejection of "inning," a term wholly without meaning even by the terms of his own argument? It's obviously a disclaimer, a face-saving way of coming around to outing after long and vocal opposition. (In this it resembles the preposterous claims of diehard rightists like Chris Matthews to be "old Democrats.") Sullivan, to be sure, doesn't follow the classic rationale for outing, as it was practiced by Michelangelo Signorile at Out. That rationale was basically that we're in the middle of a revolution against a long-entrenched repression, and that the revolution can fail only if "enough good people do nothing"?i.e., allow the broader society to ignore just how many gays there are among us. Hiding your sexuality becomes like draft-dodging: it exposes your fellow gays to defeat and re-subjugation in an otherwise winnable war. Outing is a last resort; think of it as conscription.
But whether voluntary or impressed, coming out is a communal obligation in a dangerous world. Sullivan's outing, by contrast, is based on the assumption that it's not a dangerous world for gays. In fact, we live "at a time when the stigma against homosexuality is far weaker than even 10 years ago." It's the safety of coming out that makes staying in the closet deplorably hyperscrupulous. Of Brazile he asks, "Would she be fired for talking about being gay or straight? Not very likely by a candidate who supports making discrimination against homosexuals illegal."
Sullivan's both right and wrong. Of course, Gore, dependent as he is on gay fundraising, organization and votes, could not fire Brazile if she came out. But there's no doubt he'd dearly love to, once he considered what the Catholic voters in must-win Michigan thought about his campaign being run by a lesbian. Not to mention the border states like Missouri, Kentucky and his native Tennessee, in which?if everything clicks absolutely perfectly for Gore?he'll win by a quarter of a percentage point.
This is mere electoral politics we're talking about here, not ethics. But you know what? For that reason, once the campaign was over, an out-of-the-closet Donna Brazile would never, ever, ever manage a serious national campaign again. And since what holds for the hustings often holds for the marketplace, most everyone on Sullivan's list has very good reason to stay in the closet. (The Latin Americans who could make Ricky Martin a billionaire, for instance, just love open homosexuals?that must be why they have so many colorful names for them.)
Sullivan's form of outing is more optimistic than Signorile's. But there is a logic to Signorile's antics that's missing here, a shoe that's not dropping. If gay rights has triumphed to the extent Sullivan claims, then the proper attitude toward coming out of the closet ought to be the one gays always urged toward sexual orientation itself: Who cares? Outing is the opposite of this attitude. It is a logical tactic only if the gains of the gay rights movement remain provisional, precarious, reversible. "It's as if the closet has had every foundation and bearing wall removed," Sullivan laments, "but still stands, supported by mere expediency, etiquette and the lingering shards of shame."
My guess is that Sullivan has radicalized on the question of outing because it's dawning on him that the closet is in fact sturdier and more structurally sound than he had heretofore thought. Sociologist Alan Wolfe's devastating finding that homosexuality is the one progressive cause to which American suburbanites remain vocally unsympathetic, the defeat of gay marriage in Hawaii's courts and at ballot boxes everywhere, the collapse in ratings for gay-themed tv shows... This is not a diagnosis that I make with any particular joy, but Sullivan's article adds unwitting evidence that what Richard Brookhiser has called "The Gay Moment" is drawing to a close.
Is George W. Bush really among those too stupid to understand the distinction? Asked last week by a Des Moines reporter whether he's upset about people thinking he's thick as two short planks, Bush replied, "If I would let that stuff bother me, it woulda bothered me a long time ago." Or is Bush merely engaging in a reverse-putting-on-of-airs, in order to impress Iowa voters that he's a doofus just like them?
Not that he's without competition in the malapropism primary. The Rhodes scholar Bill Bradley last week accused Bush of "flaunt[ing]...the public finance laws." What he means, of course, is "flouting." It reminded me that the great Australian critic Clive James once wrote a novel called Brilliant Creatures, in which the annoying heroine (Delilah Ball-Hunt, I believe her name is) keeps confusing the words from one end of the book to the other.
What do you call a person who flouts expertise and flaunts conventional wisdom? A presidential candidate, clearly.
Trauma Center Hearing Steve Forbes say in last week's debate that we ought to take the tax code and "drive a stake through its heart"?a trope that has been driving voters into boredom comas since as far back as 1995?convinced me that maybe we ought to take this campaign and drive a stake through its heart.
Last week's big event, the Bradley/McCain conclave on campaign finance reform, did little to change my mind. It was billed as something new in politics: Two parties getting over partisan rancor to address a peril to democracy that has raised the anguished calls for reform that can be heard all across...um...all across Jim Lehrer's dining room.
Now it's true that a meeting like this, between two presidential candidates of opposing parties, has never been done before. But the McCain/Bradley get-together was a sign not of an exciting new politics but of a boring old one. It has the whiff of European-style "grand coalitions" or "national governments"?what you call it when the two biggest parties get together to rule in tandem. This tends to happen in one of two situations: (a) the smaller parties are all so extremist?fascist, communist, separatist, whatever?that any government they belonged to would be immediately discredited; or (b) the two-party system is so rigged by the hacks of both sides that there's no reason for the parties not to get together. We're in situation (b).
We do have a problem with our campaign finance system. Its rules are senseless and toothless, so those who obey them are punished, and those who break them rewarded. But that problem is easily fixed: Eliminate all the rules (except maybe against taking money from the Chinese army) and compel full disclosure. That way, no one is told what he can do with his money, and voters can judge for themselves whether they want, say, a guy who has no campaign support aside from what he can buy with $5 million worth of support from the Asbestos Removal Industrial Consortium.
What was striking last Thursday was how much worse the McCain and Bradley reforms would make things. McCain wants to eliminate soft money, but he would allow an exception for unions, a reform that will bring the Democrats to a fundraising parity they've done nothing to deserve. Bradley wants all political activity strictly monitored and financed by the government. As he puts it, "The only way you're going to have total and complete campaign finance reform is to block all possibilities of contributing money." Since the point of this exercise was to give both McCain and Bradley a clean shot at their respective frontrunners, the predictable consolation prize for viewers was that Al Gore wound up looking like an idiot. Gore had cleverly been trashing Bradley's campaign finance proposal indirectly?by praising McCain's. And at the joint appearance, McCain as much as accused Gore of being a criminal ("When I'm the president there will be a controlling legal authority") at the very moment Gore was going on the air with ads praising McCain to the skies.
Late in the day, all the Gore campaign could do was issue a press release claiming that Gore "has made that issue a priority for more than 20 years." Who of us hasn't!
Arafat Lip What's most interesting about the damage done to Hillary Clinton by the Suha Arafat incident is that it's the first concrete refutation that Golden Rule of Politics: "What You Don't Say Won't Hurt You." Assemblyman Dov Hikind said of Hillary the other day: "When I mention Hillary Clinton in a positive way in my own community, people get furious with me... She is in major, major trouble."
Whether the community Hikind means is Jews or Brooklynites, he's right to be alarmed?but not for the obvious reasons. It's not that Hillary remained silent when Suha Arafat accused Israel of gassing Palestinian children, appalling though Arafat's malarkey was. Figuring out what to say in that situation is tougher than it looks. My own experience in merely interviewing foreign political types?particularly with a language barrier?is that they are always saying outrageous things. It's horribly rude to interrupt them, and when you do, nine times out of 10, it turns out to have been a problem of translation or of your interviewee's bad English. (Granted, there's this difference: If you're a journalist, you want the people you're with to say outrageous things.)
But maybe there was an inkling to be had during Hillary's swing through Palestine of the real reason Israel's supporters are right to fear her: because of her left-wing, adversary-culture reflexes. Politics for Hillary is about asserting moral superiority, and it's hard to assert moral superiority by taking the side of common sense. For someone like Hillary, there is a standing temptation, in any conflict between two peoples or two lifestyles, to back the barbaric over the civilized, the unsuccessful over the successful, the marginal over the mainstream. Hillary's Strangelovian reflex is always to give the Smartypants Answer, which tends to begin, "Well, you may call them terrorists, but..." Anyone who knows this?and it seems Hikind's constituents do?knows that if Hillary is backing Israel, she's fighting her instincts to do it.