Last week’s engagement at the National Press Club of the “LGBTs In The News” panel series, currently on a nationwide tour, revealed differences in opinion about the ethics of outing.
Comprised of leaders from the fields of journalism, entertainment and activism, the panel also shed light on the need for greater opportunities for LGBT actors and broadcast personalities and for better coverage of people of color at the front lines of the LGBT-equality movement.
Citing a landmark report his organization released last year, which was researched and compiled by the Williams Institute at UCLA, SAG-AFTRA’s national director of EEO and diversity, Adam Moore noted that the entertainment industry in the U.S. is the “most visible workplace on Earth,” and that as LGBT actors and media professionals gain parity in job opportunities, the entertainment industry and news business can lead by example as models of equal opportunity.
“We’ve already come a long way in our industries,” said Moore. “But you might be surprised how far we still have to go. This is an industry that is still run by a lot of very traditional, very conservative and highly risk-averse people at the top.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the controversy surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi vis-à-vis Russia’s anti-gay-propaganda law was, for all intents and purposes, only modestly grazed as a point of discussion during the panel.
However, passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was a hot topic among the panelists.
“What I believe, and as Arizona Governor Jan Brewer learned recently, corporations that have already instituted non-discrimination policies for LGBT workers are inclined to put pressure on congress to pass ENDA,” said panelist Will Walters, whose civil rights education organization, FreeWillUSA is a major sponsor of the panel series. “Ironically, big business may force ENDA to a ‘yes’ vote in the long run.”
The discussion, which was also sponsored by the Washington Blade and SAG-AFTRA (formerly the Screen Actors Guild) and held in the National Press Club’s Edward R. Murrow Room, soon turned to the enduring question of whether it is ethical for, or even incumbent upon, reporters to disclose secretly gay public figures’ sexual orientation.
“If you’re a private citizen with no public persona, that’s one thing,” Blade editor, Kevin Naff said. “However, there’s an entirely different set of rules that are specific to people in the public eye. They’ve chosen a path in the limelight and they are fair game—especially when they’re hurting other gay people and being hypocritical at the same time.”
According to Naff, ultimately it matters not whether a closeted public figure is hostile to the cause of LGBT equality.
“If they’re a public figure, reporting their sexual orientation is fair game,” he said. “If you’re in the public eye, this is part of what you signed up for.”
But author-activist and Iraq war veteran, Rob Smith disagreed.
“It’s not up to me to tell someone, even if they are against us publicly, ‘you’re going to be outed whether you like it or not,’” he said. “I’m sorry, but that’s not right; and it hurts us all in the long run.”
At least one other panelist, civil rights leader Mandy Carter, agreed with Smith.
“It can cause all kinds of damage in a person’s life to be outed, including loss of career and even suicide,” said Carter, who is co-founder of the National Black Justice Coalition. “I’m not going to be the one to decide for you whether or not you should come out of the closet.”
Working with other individuals and organizations, not least among them, Walter Naegle, surviving partner of the late Bayard Rustin, Carter has been a key figure in helping increase awareness about Rustin’s role alongside civil rights activist, A. Philip Randolph as chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
There was consensus among all of the panelists about the importance of educating the world about Bayard Rustin, who was openly gay in the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s and beyond, but who—despite being among Dr. King’s closest advisers—was kept out of the public eye as much as possible for fear that the Civil Rights movement might be “tarnished” by Rustin’s homosexuality.
All of the panelists agreed that passing ENDA was probably the most important goal the LGBT community has on its plate at the moment. Yet, each agreed that passage of ENDA in 2014 is all but impossible.
“I think 2015 looks a little more plausible,” said National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association vice president of print and online media, Sarah Blazucki.
The next “LGBTs In The News” panel will be in late spring in New York City and will feature the theme: “LGBTs and Our Allies: We couldn’t do it without you.”
“New York promises to be a decidedly star-studded panel, as we expect to have some of the music industry’s most illustrious LGBT allies and community members on the panel,” said series founder and panel moderator, Thom Senzee, a freelance journalist.
“Stay tuned for a major announcement about our confirmed panelists for the New York engagement of LGBTs In The News.”
Visit lgbtsinthenews.com for more information.