Of all the confounding behaviors that human beings engage in, perhaps none is more irritating—or more common—than hypocrisy. It’s fascinating when someone condemns behavior while engaging in it himself, which is what makes David Letterman’s relatively mundane sex scandal more intriguing than it has a right to be. He mercilessly joked about the illicit affairs of others while having just those sorts of affairs himself. To expose such a disconnect is oddly fun, and the more sanctimonious the person, the more rewarding the exposure.
This is what makes the documentary Outrage, which airs Monday and re-airs Thursday on HBO—on the eve of a gay-rights march in Washington, D.C.—such a guilty pleasure. In the film, director Kirby Dick builds the case that there are politicians who live their lives as gay men, or at least engage in gay sex, yet have voting records that undermine gay rights. Beginning with former Idaho senator Larry Craig and the foot bump felt round the world, Outrage ticks through a list of pols, presenting anecdotal evidence of their alleged trysts with men. But for all its gossipy frivolity, the film presents itself not as a Perez-style video slam book but rather a deadly serious indictment of these politicians and the havoc they wreak on the gay community. As Barney Frank says in the film, “There is a right to privacy, but not a right to hypocrisy,” and so goes Outrage, crossing the ethically fraught boundary of outing another person in the name of advancing gay rights. The problem is that the film undermines its case from beginning to end.
Outrage is plagued with problems, starting with title cards that describe a “brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy” to keep gay politicians in the closet. It’s a sexy idea that, unfortunately, is incompatible with how people actually behave. Then there’s the aforementioned anecdotal evidence, which, naturally, is as good as evidence is going to get in situations such as these. But that limits the film to convincing only those who don’t need convincing, those already inclined to believe that the most virulent homophobes might have secrets of their own. That isn’t to say the witnesses in the film are lying, merely that they aren’t going to sway anyone.
The film is also troubling in its partisanship, its tight focus on Republicans. It can be convincingly argued that the socially conservative, religiously literal right is a breeding ground for repressed homosexuality, which would explain the slant. But there’s a puzzling segment devoted to outing a Fox News personality, who is neither an elected official nor an outspoken opponent of gay rights yet is featured in the film ostensibly for having committed the sin of working for the right-leaning Fox News Channel. If we’re taking at face value the film’s notion that journalists are culpable for their involvement in Washington culture, then why not mention anyone at CNN? It’s a minor detour, but one that makes Outrage seem mean-spirited and spiteful, and undermines its idea that outing is appropriate for those who inflict damage on the gay community.
But even if not for these missteps, the film’s core argument—that closeted gay politicians should be outed—is still at issue. The job of a public official, after all, is to represent his constituency, not to vote in the way that would most benefit him. We live in a democracy, and everyone gets a vote, including bigots and homophobes, and they get to be represented as well. Now, it’s fair to suggest that the voting public has the right to know everything about its elected officials, including their personal lives. But if we knew the details of what everyone was doing and voted accordingly, who would we have to vote for? Political scandals over the years, ones that have nothing to do with homosexuality, have proved that most politicians have skeletons they keep. If a gay man wants to run for governor of a socially conservative state because he has terrific ideas on how to reduce crime, balance the budget, or bring new jobs to his state, should he put his sexuality front and center and risk going down to defeat? There’s a valid argument for both sides of that question, but Outrage pretends there isn’t. If you’re gay, the film suggests, then fighting for gay rights must always be job one, and anything less is an unforgivable betrayal.What Outrage does effectively is show that the LGBT community is horrifically, inexcusably discriminated against. The rage that stems from such injustice is completely understandable. But that rage shouldn’t be parceled out toward the few anti-gay-rights politicians who may or may not be gay; it should be shared by all officials, regardless of orientation, who engage in such naked, unrepentant bigotry. To suggest that closeted gay politicians deserve special attention is to suggest that it’s somehow excusable for straight people to discriminate against gay people. It isn’t, and it’s counterproductive to let the majority of these politicians slide while putting a spotlight on a select few.