Why Outing Will Never Vanquish Gay Shame
When Gawker outed David Geithner, the move was showered with outrage from readers and commentators. Why does homosexuality and its declaration remain so charged?
The fury at what gossip website Gawker did to David Geithner, which seemed to most readers to be to aid and abet his entrapment by a male escort, then broadcast the car-crash results to its readers, was a whirlwind of righteous indignation.
Gawker, it was deemed, was guilty of cheap, indiscriminate trashing of a man who was not a public figure, who was not guilty of any kind of hypocrisy (like the heterosexually married politician who votes against LGBT equality, while secretly having sex with members of their own sex)—and what of his family life?
Mr. Geithner had been viciously and unfairly shamed, the consensus went. While his brother may have been well-known, he was not—although Chief Financial Officer of Condé Nast counts as a leading corporate position, and the tangle of paid-for sex, and text negotiation around it, including explicit pictures, is the typical tabloid manna of a sex scandal. Gawker founder Nick Denton still claims that the story is true, but the public interest justification for publishing it is lacking, hence the removal of it from the site.
Away from the fury around the story and its target, are the questions of the curious Had Geithner’s wife ‘known?’ Was there an ‘arrangement’ between them? Or had his life suddenly been blown apart by Gawker’s story? Even if his wife had known about her husband’s attraction to men, the public disclosure of his same-sex proclivities—if the Gawker story is true, and its substance has not been fundamentally disputed yet—would surely open what was previously a private family life to violently wrenching public view.
The shame was all Gawker’s, the outraged chorused. This was inevitable: Geithner may be the brother of the former US Treasury Secretary, but what on earth had he done to merit this exposure?
It is one of the great oxymorons of our time that people have never lived so publicly online—on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—where they market themselves and hone their public identities, yet have never craved and demanded their privacy more.
The internet hordes feast on tittle-tattle and gossip and outrage, sometimes all at once, much of the time one engendering the other two. Yet, the Geithner episode shows how oddly conservative we are. For all the sex, flesh, and irreverence on display, we still expect the internet to subscribe to a notion of fair play—even though the reason we click through it is rooted in a desire to survey the world in a giddy kind of chaos.
But that response has also engendered a fierce collective repudiation about boundaries, which Gawker was deemed to have trampled on Thursday in targeting Geithner. A maturing Internet audience turned on their bratty icon to give it a spanking.
Gawker may have screwed up badly when it came to David Geithner (wrong man, wrong method, wrong justification, wrong everything), but the wellspring of anger it possesses about the closet and its discontents is absolutely valid.
What is really depressing about the episode is that ‘exposing’ or ‘outing’ someone as gay, transported on the conveyor belt of shame that such a revelation comes with, should still carry the charge that it does. When ‘outing’ originated in the early 1990s, with activist Michelangelo Signorile at the fore, its aim was twofold: to shame sexual hypocrites, who said one thing in public and did something else in private, but also to challenge the notion that there was anything shameful in being called ‘gay.’
Those were the days when public figures were ‘accused’ of being gay, as if being gay itself was a crime (and, of course, it was in some places, and still is).
These were also the days when men who had sex with men were dying, in the face of cruel governmental indifference, from HIV and AIDS. ‘Outing’ back then had all the right kind of anger behind its topsail.
Harvey Milk—really the wisest, best, bravest, years-ahead-of-his-time—had it right in the late 1970s when he urged gay people to come out; that declaring themselves honestly to family and friends and colleagues, was powerful—not just for them, but for society. The more people came out, Milk rightly thought, the more families and communities, would become acclimatized to the normalcy of gay people.
Milk’s words were prophetic and galvanizing. Now, many years later, the fight for marriage equality—really one waged with hearts and minds, within families and communities—bears his beliefs out in the best way.
Outing is a bloodletting—satisfying for obvious villains and hypocrites. But its inverse—coming out—is what LGBTs, famous and non, try for if they want to retain not only control, but also pride. Caitlyn Jenner has done this, most powerfully. So have Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, and Sir Ian McKellen.
Gawker has talked smack about celebrities’ sexuality for some time, and sometimes vindictively. There isn’t justification for that—you can talk smack about celebrities over a gin and tonic with your friends, but publishing it for public consumption is another matter, unless you have a masochistic, deep-pocketed liking for litigation.
But the Hollywood stars still in the closet, the politicians who continue to obstruct LGBT equality, the powerful who could make a difference—their closetry and silence should always anger us, not just because they could be doing good by being honest about who they are, but because their silence equals shame.
We congratulate ourselves how far we’ve evolved on issues like marriage equality and the generally positive response Caitlyn Jenner has received since revealing her transition, yet the closet and all who dwell in it continues to exert a powerful fascination precisely because it seems an anathema in these changing times.
None of us know David Geithner’s truth until he chooses to speak it, or until it is deductively revealed to us, but my first thoughts reading the texts allegedly between him and the escort he was prepared to travel thousands of miles to see—spending thousands of dollars to do it—made me think of the closet and Geithner’s personal circumstances.
Why are people still in the closet, I thought? Why should anyone still be in it? Yes, of course it’s their personal choice, and whose business is it if they want to stay there, but as anyone who has emerged from it knows, the closet is known as the closet for a reason: there might be some nice clothes to try on in there, but fundamentally it’s dark, claustrophobic, restricting, suffocating, and isolating. How weird it must be to be “rumored” to be gay.
It is moving, frustratingly moving, watching Geithner and his escort’s negotiation, because—even without the benefit of knowing how this hideous story turned out—you feel that it’s a mess waiting to happen.
I can think of no better advert against the closet than David Geithner, and where his search for a suck and fuck led him. And it is infuriating that this has happened to him—and to those he loves, for they are victims of the closet too—in 2015, in this supposed age of equality.
No, I don’t believe David Geithner should have been outed like that, but I wish to my bones he could have come out and lived whatever kind of life—right for him, right for his loved ones—which might have mitigated against a shaming, public scandal involving an escort.
If this outing mess teaches us anything, it is that despite all those happy, shiny LGBTs on television, being gay, living gay, is still no easy thing—and gay people, your gay loved ones, need help, support, and love to live, happy, healthy lives. These may seem old, unfashionable things to emphasize, but they bear repeating.
So be furious at Gawker, for sure, but also be furious that people still feel they are forced to live the double or triple lives that David Geithner seems to have been forced to. Perhaps this outing may help him and his loved ones—this far down the line.
Also be furious that if the 1992 Signorile version of outing was ultimately intended to be cleansing and shame-removing, this 2015 version is altogether more toxic.
And therein the saddest thing: closeted gay people might look upon the David Geithner farrago, and instead of thinking, “Sure, it’s time to come out,” observe all that sullied wreckage and retreat deeper into that dark, isolating closet.
To which one can only say: Don’t, just do it differently.