Thursday, April 17, 2014

The March of Progress

In various articles about gay rights, journalists often notes that public polling has showed movement faster than any other social issue in history. For an example of how far and fast things have come -- but also of how far we still have to go -- you can turn to the documentary movie Outrage.

Outrage is a documentary made by Kirby Dick, the man who made This Film Is Not Yet Rated. It takes a look at U.S. politics, specifically closeted gay politicians who consistently vote against gay rights. It was made only five years ago in 2009, but is in many ways a time capsule.

The film opens with a look at Larry Craig, the Idaho senator who famously (and rather recently, at the time) solicited gay sex from an undercover policeman in an airport bathroom. He did not seek reelection after the scandal, though he already done plenty of damage in his 18 years in office through his anti-LGBT voting history. The film then moves on to several other public figures including former New York mayor Ed Koch and to then-Florida governor Charlie Crist. Lest the film seem to be tossing around tabloid-like accusations about sexuality, it's worth noting the film also looks at Ken Mehlman, manager of George W. Bush's 2004 campaign, who came out one year after the film was made and rededicated himself to advocating pro-gay policies (though only after putting gay marriage bans on the ballot in numerous states, as part of a strategy to secure Bush's reelection).

In any case, trading in gossip isn't really the point of the film. It's in fact pushing several messages. First, it seeks to show how self-destructive it is to be gay and in the closet. The psychology of someone who must deny thousands of others equality as part of denying his own truth is a twisted one indeed. It's a sort of schoolyard mentally where a bully is happy to be picking on someone else as a way to avoid being picked on himself. Highlighting this message are interviews with former Congressmen Jim Kolbe and former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, both of whom attest to the weight lifted in coming out. (And yet, it's telling that neither of them remained in their jobs after doing so.)

Second, the movie looks at the way the media covers gay rumors. If a celebrity or politician is caught up in a sex scandal, it will dominate the new cycle for days or weeks. But if it's a gay sex scandal? The story is quickly swept under the rug. The film makes a compelling case that this double standard, this near-paranoia about outing someone against their will (even if their hypocrisy means they deserve it) serves no one any good.

To a large extent, these attitudes haven't really changed in the five years since the film was made. On the other hand, plenty of other things have. We now have the first openly gay Senator (Tammy Baldwin, interviewed here in this film when she was in the House instead). Marriage equality has been achieved in a dozen more states, including California (where the well-known Proposition 8 was challenged in court). Charlie Crist has lost his governorship in Florida, converted from Republican to Democrat, has reversed to support gay rights, and is now trying to run again for governor. (He still hasn't acknowledged being gay himself, though.)

I imagine in another five years, Outrage will be even more of a curiosity, as gay rights issues move even farther along. But on its way to being an historical chronicle, it serves in the meantime as compelling social commentary. I give it a B+.

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