Does the energy behind political opposition to same-sex marriage come largely from conservative political figures and religious activists who hide their inclinations behind anti-gay bluster?
That’s one of the most intriguing conjectures sure to be sparked by Outrage, a new documentary about the lives of closeted politicians who use their influence to oppose the advance of LGBT rights [see trailer below]. The film premiered on April 24 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and opens in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington DC on Friday.
Much of the commentary surrounding Outrage will inevitably focus on outing—the practice of reporting on the private lives of supposedly straight public figures to uncover “closeted” homosexual activity.
That may invite the complaint that Outrage is taking a tool from the kit of tabloid journalism. But in an interview with Reuters, filmmaker Kirby Dick suggests that his intention differs from investigative work that produces exposés on the sexual appetites of entertainers like John Travolta and Tom Cruise. His distinction hinges on the assertion that the disingenuous and oppressive use of power, rather than homosexuality itself, is the main focus of his inquiry.
“[Outrage] is not about outing gay politicians,” Dick says. “It is about reporting on hypocrisy. When a politician is in the closet and voting anti-gay with a very consistent record, he’s acting hypocritically and I think it’s completely appropriate for me to report on that.”
Dick has fashioned a career as a crusader for transparency when it comes to some of the murkiest spots in American culture: where powerful institutions control the mechanisms that shape our collective understanding of sex and sexuality. His Academy Award-nominated documentary Twist of Faith tells the story of a firefighter struggling with the aftereffects of his boyhood abuse by a Catholic priest.
In This Film Is Not Yet Rated, he examined the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a secretive organization whose controversial movie-rating system tends to maximize our exposure to violence while effectively censoring content that social and religious conservatives might consider transgressive. “Why should the most powerful media lobbying group in the country have a ratings system that’s homophobic, that continues to perpetuate homophobia in this country?” Dick told Slant magazine back in 2006, a sentiment not far from the one that inspired Outrage.
Indeed, the filmmaker’s justification for taking on the MPAA, the Catholic Church, and, now, closeted right-wing politicians isn’t too hard to accept. Those who abuse power often hide their misdeeds behind a scrim of self-righteousness and moral authority; one of journalism’s highest callings has always been to pierce that veil of secrecy.
But if Outrage succeeds as a service to the public—particularly to us queerfolk, whose disenfranchisement seems to be one of the only things animating the Republican Party these days—it also draws our attention to one of the sharpest ironies of our religiously-inflected politics: deeply closeted gay men are often drawn to key nodes of power in the conservative movement.
From Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover to Dick’s subjects in Outrage (including Ken Mehlman, former chairman of the RNC and manager of George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, and Florida governor Charlie Crist, a presidential hopeful who pushed for his state’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2008), American politics produces a distinctive cohort that excels at manipulating the darker impulses of their followers, patrons and constituents precisely because their own ambitions take shape in the shadows of the closet.
It’s not difficult to see why these two-faced demons inspire outrage in Kirby Dick and other progressive activists. They also deserve a measure of our sympathy. Like Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, and their counterparts in the pulpit, closeted conservative politicians profess to guard the gates of heaven while living in their own personal hell.
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