Dated ‘Outrage’ attempts to grapple with closeted politicians who harm gay people

May 13, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 13, 2014

I visited some friends the other day, and we ended up watching a movie. After some wrangling over what would be acceptable to the three of us, we settled on Outrage, a 2009 documentary picture of which I had never heard. The film, written and directed by Kirby Dick, examines — and frankly condemns — closeted homosexual politicians in the United States who vote against gay rights.

The movie’s rather dubious thesis is that there is a conspiracy amongst politicos and journalists to keep the public in the dark about the sexuality of gay officials. One such man, allegedly, was Ed Koch, and we are told of threats of the financial ruin that supposedly thwarted a former lover from publicly talking to reporters about his intimate relationship with the New York City bachelor-mayor. Koch, who died in 2013, was a congressman at the time of this affair, which we hear about from friends of the supposed lover. Rather infamously, Koch ignored the initial outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, which devastated gay communities in New York and across the nation.

We also see footage from a 2006 Larry King interview in which Bill Maher outed Ken Mehlman, who led the Republican National Committee as it distributed anti-gay campaign during the 2004 presidential campaign. Maher’s naming of Mehlman was omitted from repeat broadcasts of the program.

Unfortunately, Dick — the director of multiple acclaimed documentaries, two of which have been nominated for Academy Awards — apparently never paused to consider why a news organization would have backed away from a more or less off-the-cuff remark from a noted provocateur.

On a practical level, exposing the personal lives of people who aren’t celebrities, even when they are public figures, can be grounds for expensive litigation. To consider matters on a more elevated plane, sexuality is not a binary orientation. What outsider can authoritatively say that years of rumors, or even a few documented dalliances, add up to a given person being homosexual, as opposed to occasionally experimenting, or simply acting recklessly?

This isn’t to excuse CNN’s handling of Maher’s comments, which represents questionable judgment by a news network. (Interestingly, in reporting on the network’s editing the politico out of Larry King re-broadcasts, the New York Times also failed to name Mehlman — something that supports Dick’s thesis but goes unmentioned.) Unfortunately, the filmmaker’s unwillingness to engage in full the complicated ethical questions represent a serious omission.

Still, Outrage presents at least one case that raises very troubling questions. The movie argues convincingly that Jim McCrery, a Republican who represented Louisiana in Congress for a decade, repeatedly trawled his old fraternity house for gay sex partners. McCrery, who has denied being gay, was the top Republican on the powerful Ways and Means Committee when he left the House of Representatives. Like many other legislators shown in Outrage, McCrery consistently voted to oppose gay marriage and gay adoption; however, on at least one occasion he supported a ban on workplace discrimination against homosexuals.

The segment on McCrery is disturbing on several levels. It not only describes multiple flings with younger men but also suggests that McCrery’s spouse, policy stances and religious views were suddenly adopted as convenient accessories to the sudden rise of an ambitious man who was still relatively young himself.

One thing that makes this material convincing is that men tell Dick on camera that they either had sex with McCrery or witnessed him engage in serial affairs with current members of his former college fraternity. The case against David Dreier, a centrist Republican who represented California in Congress from 1981 to 2013, and who is alleged to have had an affair with his longtime chief of staff, is much more circumstantial.

Outrage presents a few of its subjects as heroes, notably founder Michael Rogers (now an editor at the liberal website, who outed more than 30 closeted homosexual politicos, and radio host Michelangelo Signorile, who recalls bashing allegedly gay fellow high school kids so he could divert suspicions about his own sexuality.

Dick also interviews a number of openly gay political types. One, District of Columbia city council member David Catania, encapsulates the case for outing closeted pols when he says, “Self-hating gay people in the closet are most vicious towards other gays and lesbians.” Another, former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, describes indulging in gay sex in potentially hazardous places and circumstances. McGreevey and his second ex-wife both say on camera how the Democrat’s pursuit of a double life essentially made a mockery of their marriage.

Outrage fails to note, however, that some of McGreevey’s decisions weren’t just inimical to himself, to loved ones, or to homosexuals in general. His undoing began when he appointed his lover, the unknown and unqualified Golan Cipel, to a state government security post.

But the film suffers from a problem at least as serious as the aforementioned sins of omissions. The issue is that Outrage is dated.

In the nearly five years since HBO aired the documentary, the long string of popular votes against gay marriage — a key issue in the 2004 campaign between President George W. Bush and challenger John Kerry — has now begun heading in the opposite direction. Since 1996, the proportion of Americans who tell pollsters they support same-sex marriage has risen from less than 30 percent to around half. Two years ago, Wisconsin elected Tammy Baldwin, who appears in Outrage as an openly gay congresswoman, to the United States Senate.

Heck, just this past Saturday, homosexuals in the United States have celebrated two milestones: Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted by the National Football League and Arkansas issued marriage licenses to gay couples for the first time ever.

There’s one man mentioned in Outrage who should command contemporary interest. He is Charlie Crist, who was elected governor of Florida in 2006 and who, after losing a general election to current U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, is now running for governor as a Democrat. Dick’s documentary presents evidence that Crist might be gay. (Emphasis on might; Crist, you may not be surprised to read, denies that he is homosexual.)

This is relevant now not so much because Crist used to oppose gay adoption and gay marriage. Instead, as with McCrery and McGreevey, the evidence Dick presents raises the question of whether Crist’s entire public persona might be as false as a Potemkin village. (His policy positions have certainly proven to be moveable. As John Gallagher wrote for Queerty earlier this year, “Crist, the Democrat’s version of that human weather vane, Mitt Romney, has never met a political stand that he couldn’t discard when convenient.”)

But in the main, Outrage conveys a glimpse of a nation that was — seemingly unbeknownst to Dick — on the cusp of a sea change regarding the acceptance and expansion of gays and their rights. While there remains a long way to go, of course, it’s hard to imagine a significant regression or reversal in these trends.

Thanks to these changes, and thanks to its flaws, Outrage is most relevant to historians of gay culture at this point. For that, viewers and non-viewers alike have reason to be thankful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: