The Age Of 'Outing'

The posters pop up regularly on walls along the streets of downtown Manhattan. They're quickly torn away but they always return. They carry household names and faces: actors, writers, television celebrities. The stark black-and-white photos give the subjects the look of fugitives. But instead of a bounty under the pictures, there is a caption: "Absolutely Queer."

Uncloseting gays was once a tactic of right-wing homophobes and other haters. Not so in the age of "outing." For more than a year an angry faction of the gay community has been zapping some of its most prominent members with unwanted daylight. The practice has touched off a fierce debate in gay America over privacy, political correctness and the best way to achieve equality and acceptance in an unaccommodating straight world. That dispute is likely to widen dramatically this week when The Advocate, a gay weekly, publishes an article naming a top Defense Department official. Many prominent gays-even those troubled by previous outings-think his position makes him a special case. The Pentagon's prohibition against gays in the service results in the dismissal of about 1,400 men and women annually, including some who served in the Persian Gulf. "This guy works for an organization that makes people's lives a living hell on the grounds of their sexual preference," says novelist Armistead Maupin, an outing supporter.

Other gays argue that any outing is unconscionable-a form of fratricide undermining years of effort to promote gay pride. "The gay movement is predicated on the idea that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of," says gay author Randy Shilts. "[Outing] has really twisted what the gay movement is supposed to be all about." It has also thrust the press once again into the bedroom, forcing editors to weigh the competing values of privacy and public interest. So far, most news organizations, including NEWSWEEK, have opted for privacy.

The new gay radicalism has produced its own pernicious double standards, demanding protection for some and total exposure for others. At a recent meeting in San Francisco of Queer Nation, a gay group in the extremist vanguard (page 24), a NEWSWEEK reporter asked for a show of hands on two questions: how many members supported outing and how many were "out" to their parents. The queries met with angry refusal.

The outing debate is part of a larger upheaval in gay politics. After a decade consumed by the struggle against AIDS, a new grass-roots energy has infused the gayrights movement. Younger gays are pressing for a renewed commitment to broader agendas that include fighting antigay violence and discrimination. They're also staking claim to a new visibility, sending a blunt message to the heterosexual world and to their gay elders-that quiet assimilation is unacceptable. The language of the new restiveness is angry. A traditional epithet is now an in-your-face moniker: queer. "We are telling the people that we are here and that AIDS is not going to kill all of us," says David Fowler, a founder of Houston's chapter of Queer Nation.

Other maturing political movements for civil rights and environmentalism - have been roiled by similar radical ferment. And divisions in the gay community are not new. Tensions between those advocating liberation and assimilation have simmered for years. Since the Stonewall riots of 1969, gays have made significant strides. There are now 53 openly gay elected officials at various levels of government; in 1980 there were five. Four states have passed laws banning discrimination against gays. Organizations like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force have helped gays marshal unprecedented political clout. But new activists say the established organizations have grown gentrified and flabby. Mainstream leaders say they want what their radicalized counterparts want. "What we disagree on is how to get there," says Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the NGLTF. "How far do we go, where do we stop?"

The radicals' discontent has sent ripples of change through the gay world. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the rambunctious grass-roots organization that forced federal officials to streamline the approval process for experimental AIDS drugs, has spawned new direct-action groups like Queer Nation. A newly energized lesbian movement has come into its own, powered by a celebration of eroticism that recalls the gay male sexual liberation of the 1970s. Younger women are renouncing the muted political correctness of elders and "beginning to reclaim their sexuality in a way that gay men have been doing forever," says lesbian writer Rachel Pepper.

One way activists want to drive their point home is by making "coming out" more than a personal disclosure to friends and family. Where possible, they want it to be news, drawing the media into the fray. They're having limited success. Syndicated columnist Jack Anderson named the Pentagon official in question late last week and reported that he might resign. The official denied the report. But most news organizations didn't take the bait. The Washington Post, which normally carries Anderson, pulled his outing column. Assistant managing editor Karen DeYoung said it wasn't yet clear that the official's sexual orientation had a significant bearing on his public responsibilities.

By itself, outing has limited utility in advancing the cause of gay equality. It's difficult to see how gays wrenched from the closet can be assets to a political movement-either as role models for young people or ambassadors to the mainstream. But it's the anger behind outing that sends an important message: that gays in the 1990s expect new honesty about sexual roles from gays, straights and their institutions. That's a message that, one way or another, can't be ignored.

Since the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, gay groups have sprung up with missions ranging from civil-rights issues and health care to "outing" celebrities. They include:

Principal national gay civil-rights lobby group; $1.4 million budget.

Oldest and largest AIDS service organization. Assists 4,500 gay and other AIDS victims.

New group dedicated to funding 20 openly gay political candidates this year.

Less militant than Queer Nation, more a gay NAACP working to win minority-status rights.

Organized in 1987 to prod the government on AIDS issues like drug approval; known for strident protests.

Small, secretive group that publishes posters proclaiming some celebrities to be "Absolutely Queer."