February 9, 2019 at 5:58 pm EST | by James Wellemeyer
Is it homophobic to speculate about a politician’s sexuality?
Lindsey Graham, gay news, Washington Blade
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has been the subject of speculation over his sexual orientation for years. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In 2004, LGBT activist and journalist Mike Rogers posted a story on his website—Blog ACTIVE—suggesting that Edward Schrock, a Republican congressman representing Virginia’s second district, solicited sex with other men through a phone service. For years, Schrock had advocated a variety of anti-gay policies. Not only did he oppose same-sex marriage, but he objected to LGBT people serving in the military. Schrock never denied the allegations Rogers made, and not long after the story came out, Schrock announced that he would end his campaign for a third term in Congress.

Rogers started his blog in 2004 at a time when Republicans had added anti-gay marriage initiatives to ballots in 11 states. He claimed that some of the Republican operatives pushing these initiatives were themselves gay and made it his mission to expose them. 

“Many closeted homosexual men were at night going out to gay bars, getting laid, having sex, and then by day running some of the most homophobic political campaigns,” he told The Blade. Rogers asserts the right to privacy ends “when you’re oppressing the very group that you’re a member of.”

In recent years, Rogers’ blog has been largely inactive. But the concept of outing has made its way back into the national political conversation. In September 2018, comedian Bill Maher alleged Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is gay while criticizing the congressman for his defense of Brett Kavanaugh. Likewise, on National Coming Out Day in October, television host Chelsea Handler suggested Graham is gay in a Tweet. Both Handler and Maher faced backlash from the right and the left for their comments. Many on the left disapproved of the statements because they took them as a suggestion that being gay is somehow funny or shameful. Despite the pushback, others have made similar comments about Graham in the following months. 

Shortly after Handler tweeted in October, Graham addressed the years-old rumors and said he is not gay. But regardless of the senator’s sexual orientation, the issue has raised the question of whether it’s unethical—or even homophobic—to speculate about a politician’s sexuality, particularly while criticizing them.

Rogers would maintain that it isn’t. But his approach remains controversial, and not all agree with it. 

Jerri Ann Henry, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, opposes outing in all circumstances. 

“I’ll tell you first and foremost with no hesitation that I think outing is something that is terrible and that we should refrain from doing,” she said. She said coming out is a personal decision and a personal experience. “There’s always factors involved that we on the outside may not know.”

In respect to Handler’s recent Tweet about Graham, Henry worries that outing is re-emerging as a political tactic. “When we start using this as a political tool, it takes away from the beauty of somebody celebrating their sexuality and coming out, even though there is sometimes legitimate difficulty with that and legitimate strife,” she told the Blade. She sees speculating about or revealing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity as nothing more than a “form of bullying.”

The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people, largely echoed Henry’s stance on the issue. “It is absolutely never okay to ‘out’ someone without their permission, as folks’ sexual orientation and gender identity can be a deeply personal part of their narrative,” Trevor Project Senior Trainer Joie DeRitis told the Blade. “We know that being ‘outed’ can have a profound negative impact on folks’ mental health, and their physical and emotional safety.”

Jim Kolbe, a former U.S. congressman from Arizona, holds a position somewhere between the stances of Rogers and Henry. Kolbe came out as gay publicly in 1996 after The Advocate threatened to reveal his sexual orientation in an article due to his support for the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996. The bill, signed into law by President Bill Clinton after passing the House and Senate with a veto-proof majority, defined marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Kolbe was “not happy” when he learned The Advocate was planning to out him, but in retrospect, “it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he told the Blade this week. That doesn’t change the problems with the practice of outing, he says. “I think that individuals have to make the decision themselves when they want to.” He said an exception can be made if a certain politician or person in power is actively pushing virulently anti-LGBT policies and consistently speaking out against the LGBT community. He doesn’t believe his 1996 vote in favor of DOMA put him in this category, though. “People can have different views on gay marriage and be gay,” he said.

Outing as a political tactic and as a general practice remain controversial. Most agree that revealing the sexual orientation of an individual who has done no harm to the LGBT community is unethical. In some cases, outing can even subject LGBT people to physical danger. More than 70 countries criminalize same-sex relationships, and a few of those nations retain the death penalty for homosexual acts. In these areas, outing can send its victims to prison or a far worse fate. As recently as November 2018, the government of Tanzania launched an anti-gay crackdown and asked residents to report anyone they knew to be gay to a hotline. In the United States and other countries where same-sex marriage is legal, outing can have other consequences. For young people, in particular, it can affect family relationships and place already vulnerable individuals in further danger. Roughly 40 percent of the 1.6 million homeless young people in the U.S. identify as LGBT, according to various studies. Many of these kids were forced out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some others likely left after experiencing hate and abuse from their parents or other family members. 

But the question becomes more complicated when the discussion centers on powerful politicians who have pushed anti-gay agendas. In those circumstances, “the intent behind it is a real sense of betrayal or anger,” former National News Media Director at GLAAD Cathy Renna told the Blade. 

What is clear is that the community hasn’t made up its mind on the issue of outing and likely won’t reach a uniform agreement—at least not anytime soon.

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