The excellent documentary "Outrage," about Mike Rogers and other gay political activists who expose closeted gay politicians working against gay rights, debuted yesterday on HBO, and will be airing many times throughout the coming weeks. So this seemed like a good time to reprint my interview with Mike. This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
Why do they fight so viciously against the very sexualities they practice?
And why do people decide to expose them?
I've pondered this question before. But it keeps coming up -- and up, and up, and up, to an almost comical degree. So I thought I'd ask one of the world's leading experts on closeted gay politicians: Mike Rogers.
Mike Rogers wears many hats, all of them fabulous. (See bio below.) But he's best known as "the most feared man on Capitol Hill": a dogged investigative reporter known for outing closeted gay politicians who work and vote against LGBT rights. He's the star of "Outrage," the recent documentary inspired by his investigations. His most recent expose is among his most controversial: South Carolina Lt. Governor Andre Bauer, the closeted anti-gay politician who's in line to replace the now-infamous Governor Mark Sanford. We spoke recently about how and why he outs closeted anti-gay politicians, his standards of evidence, the psychology of homophobic gay people, the difference between news and gossip, and more.
Greta: You've made it a big part of your life's work to expose closeted gay politicians who work and vote against LGBT rights. Can you tell us why you decided to do that?
Mike: It's not really a big part of my life's work. I think people have that misconception, because it's what I'm so well known for. But my life's work, at least up until now, has been that of a fundraiser. My politics are shaped by my work at a number of places, but particularly the Harvey Milk School, where I saw young people who were affected by society in such negative ways. What I saw was unacceptable to me. Society was abusing these kids.
So from that point, I felt that everything I do in my career, I want to do to make the world better. But it was only in 2004, with the incredible frustration I felt over the use of marriage in the 2004 election -- that's when I decided, "You know what? This is bullshit. And I'm going to do something about it."
Why do you think outing has become such a big part of your public image? Is it just because it's lurid? Why do you think that's how people identify you?
Well, people love it. Everyone loves a good outing. It's sensationalism. Why do people care more about who John Edwards had sex with than they care about ending poverty in America? Why do people care more about who Bill Clinton got a blowjob from than they care about true health care reform? Well, it's not boring all of a sudden. The media's like, "Woo hoo! We have something fun and different and exciting!"
It's sexy, and we're primates, and we care about that.
Right. It's not that people are fascinated by the sex lives of closeted politicians. It's that people are fascinated by sex lives. This is nothing new, it's been going on for a long time, but history has denied it. People have trouble viewing history in color. So much of our history is denied over sex.
Let me ask about your most recent outing: South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer. Why did you feel this particular story was important?
First of all, Andre Bauer stood up and defended anti-marriage stuff. When I looked at who put Andre Bauer into office, and the running theme of his political career -- this is a man who has been in bed with anti-gay forces since he got into politics.
It's a personal call. There are lots of Republicans, including some in Congress, who are closeted and gay, and I have no reason to out them. They're not in bed with the religious right; they're not working with a team of folks who are rabid homophobes.
Now, a lot of people object to outing on principle. Even with closeted gay politicians who vote against gay rights: they still think people have a right to sexual privacy, and to decide for themselves when and if to come out, no matter what. What's your response to that?
First of all: Regardless of what they would like, politicians don't get to decide what stories about their lives will be reported on. That's not how it works. Whether it's taking money from the treasury, bribing people, whatever it is -- the guy in office doesn't get to say, "Don't write a story about this, but write a story about that."
In terms of who has the right to report things? No other community is expected to harbor its own enemies.
I have no problem if these people want to be private -- but then they shouldn't be running for office. I wrote a post called No more "outing," where I pledged to replace the word "outing" with "reporting." To me, "outing" is the indiscriminate revealing of an individual's sexual orientation. I don't do that. I report on hypocrisy.
Do people feel that if a member of Congress is arguing against choice, and it's found out that they had an abortion -- is that something that should not be reported? If you find out that a member of Congress is supposedly a Christian, and is having an affair -- should that be reported? For me, the answer is yes. It's a very simple thing... because they are beating gay people up.
I have yet to find a reason that Larry Craig should be able to say that somebody who has sex with a man should not serve in the military -- and then he has sex with men, and serves on the Veteran's Affairs Committee in Congress. That should be uncool with every person in America. If nothing else, it shows such a steep level of something in their psychology, that they shouldn't be one of the 535 people running the country.
So what are your standards of evidence? The LGBT community is full of gossip about celebrities and politicians who are gay, and a lot of the time it's not true. How, as a reporter, do you distinguish between garden variety celebrity gossip about who is and isn't gay, and a credible story that's likely to be true?
Every reporter decides how and what they're going to report. When Sy Hersh writes for the New Yorker that there are Dick Cheney operatives in the Pentagon, and that he can't reveal his sources, people take at value whether they believe Sy Hersh is telling the truth -- that he talked to people.
So there are all these different standards. You can have folks at the Atlanta Journal Constitution who destroyed Richard Jewell's life, or Judith Miller who sent us into war on behalf of the New York Times -- without any proof, without anything other than one person.
I take it much further. I'm a reporter. I research stories. Like many reporters, the first thing that happens is a tip. Let me tell you how many "tips" I've gotten: "I heard So-and-so is gay, I know he's gay, I've heard it forever, I just don't have the proof." I've probably gotten a hundred emails over the years that have said, "Lindsay Graham is gay, I can't believe you're not reporting this, you're a horrible individual." Well, everybody can say they know Lindsay Graham is gay -- but I don't know if Lindsay Graham is gay. I don't know if Lindsay Graham has sex with men.
Now, in some cases, it's easy. A tip comes in, it's the voice mail of a U.S. Congressman looking for sex on a phone sex line. Eight different tapes.
If only they were all that easy!
So in a variety of methods, I verify whether the tapes are correct or not. They may not be. But the proof is in the pudding: whether the proof is tapes, or whether I report on Larry Craig eight months before he's arrested and the arrest becomes the news. In the cases where it's easy, it's a no-brainer.
The other cases come down to: What do people know, when did they know it, who said what, how did they say it. So what I do -- what I did, for example, in Larry Craig's case -- I met various people who claimed to have had sex with Larry Craig. Now, when I meet a gay political guy here [in D.C.] who says, "I had sex with Larry Craig," and he tells me specific characteristics about Larry Craig's penis -- and then I fly 3.000 miles across the country, and I meet with somebody who's not in the political arena, who had no connection to the guy in Washington, and he tells me very similar things about Larry Craig's penis, despite there being a five or ten or fifteen year difference? That, to me, says something else.
That's credible. That's not gossip. That's multiply- confirmed, independent, first-hand stories.
Exactly. But those people won't come forward. It's not that they don't believe in what I'm doing, it's not fear of being disproven. They won't come forward because they know that the right-wing garbage machine will shred them. They will shred them from head to toe. Look at the shredding Michael Jones went through.
We all know that it isn't just gay people who hide their sex lives and then take political action inconsistent with those sex lives. My question, with the people who are gay: How much of this shame and denial do you think has to do with being gay... and how much of it is just about sex and sexuality? Like sex is something that's dirty and secret, something you don't talk about? And how much is shame about being gay specifically?
First time I got that question! It's a good one.
There is a pathology. In some places it's probably about the sexual part of it -- that they're so ashamed of the sex. For others, it's probably a matter of convenience. You want to be the governor of South Carolina, and you're the lieutenant governor, and you'll never get elected if you tell anyone you're gay. So -- you make yourself not gay.
I think there are different people, and I'll give you an example. David Dreier is different than Larry Craig. In fact, David Dreier is much closer to Barney Frank than he is to Larry Craig, in terms of the psychology. David Dreier is a gay man, he has a gay relationship, he has gay friends -- but he has built this closet. He's what I call a man on a journey.
I don't know if you know my case with Paul Koering, the state senator? Koering's an interesting case because he was a gay Republican who was not always voting for us the way he should have, and I felt he was on a journey. And it was being on that journey that made me tell him, "Senator, when you go in and vote next week" -- he was voting on a Michele Bachmann thing in the State Legislature -- "don't worry how you vote. I'm not going to out you." I actually expected him to vote for their state marriage amendment. As a result of everything, he ended up coming out against the amendment. The only Republican to do so. Voted against it, walked out in the lobby of the Minnesota State Capitol -- and simultaneously came out on my site and to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
I think my work nudged his journey... but even if he had voted against us, I didn't think it was worth an outing, because I thought his journey would get him where he had to be. For Paul, and he's talked about this, it was the strict Catholic upbringing he went through in Brainerd, Minnesota, that brought him to the closet. It was something he had to overcome.
As opposed to Larry Craig. Larry Craig was never going to overcome his closet. Ever. It's a dry drunk syndrome.
That brings me to my last question. In your experience, what typically happens with closeted gay political figures after they've been exposed? It seems like some of them change their attitudes about LGBT issues, and some don't. What do you think makes that difference: the difference between somebody who, once they're outed or are pushed out, then they're out and proud and start working for our causes -- and the people who just get buried deeper in the closet?
What makes anybody different? What makes people be out, and then not tell their parents? Or what makes people tell their parents, and not tell their friends? What makes people live their whole lives, and then come out when they're sixty? Each person lives their life through their experience.
When a guy is in college, and someone outs him to his family, how does the guy react? Either, "No, Ma, that's bullshit, it's not true," or "Hey, I'm gay. Get over it." That's probably a question better asked to a psychologist than to me.
Michael Rogers is the director of the National Blogger and Citizen Journalist Initiative and a Media Fellow at the New Organizing Institute, where he develops nationwide media programs. He is a former development director of the Harvey Milk School, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and GALA Choruses, and was director of major gifts at Greenpeace. Rogers blogs at BlogActive and is the lead subject of "Outrage," a documentary inspired by and about the work of his site. Rogers is the executive editor of PageOneQ and director of business development for Raw Story. He resides in Washington, DC.