Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick seems to be saying in Outrage that there are a couple of reliable ways to identify who might be gay: you can either look for the most flamboyantly gay men to play for the men's only team, or you can look for the most flamboyantly anti-gay men to equal effect.
In terms of politicians who are rumored to be closeted gay men, the latter proposition is presented as an axiom: there's a veritable parade of anti-gay pols whose voting records against everything from equitable family rights to support for HIV/AIDS initiatives show a hostility that can't really be explained by either reason or religion. Something deeper is at work, Dick's film suggests, something pathological and desperate.
The film looks at how the gay press has pursued allegedly closeted anti-gay politicians, while the mainstream media has shied away from investigating the leads, the evidence, and the sources that queer journalists have relied upon. Indeed, the mainstream media seems to skirt gay issues in general: a couple of hilarious clips show news anchors flubbing their reports with Freudian slips.
Dick's camera also takes a hard, long look at various politicians themselves: their voting records, their public statements, their evasions and carefully orchestrated, overly homey presentations of themselves as ordinary, straight family men. That's an image any male politician wishes to cultivate, of course--but the point here is that there's a caustic, corroding cynicism at work that leads closeted pols to embrace one sort of family and only one, even if (as the movie alleges) some politicians may be better suited to other domestic arrangements.
Names are named: a lot of names, in fact, from (inevitably) Larry Craig, the Republican senator from Idaho convicted of soliciting sex from a male undercover officer in an airport restroom, to Florida governor Charlie Crist, the first unmarried man to be elected to the governorship in that state in four decades... and who, six weeks before McCain selected a running mate in the 2008 election, went and got married. The implication is that Crist was hoping to make himself a more attractive choice for McCain by entering into wedded bliss. (The movie quotes a former gal-pal as saying this about rumors that Crist is secretly gay: ask her again in a decade, she reckons, and "I'll tell you a story.")
It's politicians like Crist that the movie lambasts, with pundits saying that if the governor had at least come out against the ballot initiative that wrote anti-gay discrimination into that state's constitution last fall, the measure might well have failed. A whole roster of allegedly closeted politicians are held up as object lessons in why it's okay to out gays who work to oppress the gay community: the damage they do makes outing a tactical, perhaps even a moral, necessity.
Other public figures who might have made a difference in leavening the influence of anti-gay churches on the political right also come in for a critique: Mary Chaney, daughter of the former vice president, for one--and, by extension, a whole elite wing of conservatism that seems to uphold privacy rights for the rich and influential, while disregarding them in the course of attacking less prominent families across the nation.
A few politicians speak out about their formerly-closeted status. Barney Frank is present in the film, loaded with wit and one-liners; Jim Kolbe is another. But none is more eloquent than former New Jersey governor and self-proclaimed "gay American" James McGreevey, who speaks movingly of the personal cost of living two separate, distinct lives, one of which is artfully and obsessively constructed to the point of subsuming much of the other, leaving the individual hollowed out, exhausted, and morally disoriented.
As we're old at one point, living in the closet for political expediency leaves a person with a "deeply convoluted sense of what is right, and what is wrong."
That may well be true even of individuals and groups that are not gay but the manufacture, promote, and come to believe in the kind of anti-gay rhetoric that sustains and funds think-tanks and careers in oppressive strains of activism.
In the largest context, Outrage is not the comprehensive conversation we need to sort these matters out, but it is a comprehensive and convincing set of talking points. The problem is getting the panicked, the fearful, and the cynical to stop and listen.
Outrage airs tonight, October 5, 2009 at 9pm. It will be repeated on HBO through November 11, 2009. For more information, visit the HBO website.