Media and the Closet
In a July 1991 column about the hate murder of a local gay man, Houston Post columnist Juan Palomo tried to come out of the closet to discuss his own fears about being gay-bashed. His editors demanded the mention of his sexual orientation be cut, finding it “inappropriate” and part of a “personal agenda.” After Palomo discussed the conflict with other publications, he was canned. “Out of the Closet and Out of Work”, proclaimed the headline in New York Newsday (9/1/91).
The Houston Post, it seems, didn’t mind that Palomo was gay as long as he didn’t go around talking about it or his dispute with the paper’s squeamish editors. A week later, embarrassed by the publicity and protests following the firing (including boycott calls from the city’s gay and Latino communities), the Post relented and rehired Palomo.
The paper’s attempt to keep a popular columnist in the closet followed on the heels of the most widely publicized “outing” of the year. Writing in the Advocate (8/27/91), the national gay and lesbian news magazine, Michaelangelo Signorile condemned Assistant Secretary of Defense Pete Williams for staying in the closet while the Pentagon, since 1982 alone, has dismissed nearly 13,000 lesbians and gay men from the armed services solely because of their sexual orientation.
Williams’ homosexuality was no secret in Washington gay circles, yet most national media commentators were aghast at the outing — the same pundits who kept silent while the Pentagon forced out more than 1,000 gay veterans of Desert Storm, leading to at least one suicide. (The military’s gay-exclusion policy wasn’t enforced for the duration of the Persian Gulf conflict, a story only the San Francisco Chronicle, 1/11/91, and a few others deemed worthy of reporting.)
In the wake of the Advocate article, ABC‘s Sam Donaldson (8/18/91) asked Defense Secretary Richard Cheney on national TV about the exclusion policy; Time magazine (8/18/91) ran a lead story titled “Marching Out of the Closet”; and most newspapers seemed to discover the ban for the first time, with some editorializing against it.
Neither ABC nor Time, nor the majority of the media, identified Williams by name (and both the New York Times and the Washington Post, which oppose the military’s ban, have run personality pieces on Williams that avoided any mention of the controversy surrounding this “bachelor”).
If the Pentagon’s leading spokesperson hadn’t been outed, when would the national media have turned their attention to the military’s anti-gay policies? Outing proved to be one of the few ways to get the media to take notice of the discrimination gay people struggle against every day.
If the press stopped treating gayness as a stamp of shame, outing would lose much of its bite. But the media’s double standard forbids acknowledging the sexual orientation of gay people they view as heroes, while sensationalistically trumpeting it in the case of villains.
Five years ago, for instance, New Yorker Ken Dawson, who worked as the head of a group called Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE), rescued a stranger who was drowning in the Hudson River. While Dawson was upfront about what he did for a living, the local media (which gave the story wide coverage) managed to exclude references to his occupation — except for one tabloid, which called him an “advocate for seniors.”
Similarly, it fell to the supermarket tabloid Globe to describe Kevin Ellis, one of the heroes of the Oceanos cruise liner sinking, as “a gay tapdancer [who] bravely battled hurricane-force winds and mountainous seas for 15 frantic hours to rescue women and children.”
But witness the fixation on accused mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer’s sexual orientation. Many local TV news programs referred to murders following “gay orgies.” Radio shock jock Rush Limbaugh, syndicated on more than 400 stations, blamed “homosexual militants” for intimidating the police from investigating Dahmer– standing reality on its head, since Milwaukee gays had complained police weren’t doing enough to investigate the disappearance of (mainly black) gay men over the last few years.
Forced invisibility for gays (unless the individual in question is a ghoul) takes many forms. Many papers’ obituary policies prohibit naming gay life partners as survivors — often, even when the family requests that the surviving partner be named.
Last year (3/15/90), the New York Times reported that Loretta Rivera, a woman killed by a stray bullet in Brooklyn, was carrying a photograph of her “boyfriend” when she died. In fact, it was a picture of her female lover, Liz Melendez. The Times apologized later (3/20/90) for the “editing error.”
The exclusion of gays also applies to the selection of experts. When Nightline (8/30/91) examined the theory that homosexuality might be related to differences in a part of the brain, it featured a discussion between two heterosexual psychiatrists — and anti-gay crusader Jerry Falwell. (In 1985, Nightline used Falwell as an “expert” on AIDS.)
The debate over outing has to be understood in the context of a media culture that does its best to keep nearly everyone in. When New York city council candidate Liz Abzug, running in the heavily gay West Village/Chelsea district, disclosed that she was a lesbian, she was criticized by the New York Post (6/7/91): “In a saner political culture, what one does in one’s bedroom might be thought to have nothing to do with one’s suitability to serve in public office.” In fact, what many media leaders are looking for is a sanitized political culture, where no one need mention the nasty fact that they’re gay or lesbian.