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When outing politicians, follow guidelines

May 29, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

If a controversial documentary about closeted gay politicians put the issue of "outing" on the front burner, this week's California Supreme Court ruling that banned same-sex marriage made sure the heat stayed up.

A few journalists, particularly in the gay community, have led a campaign to reveal the sexual orientation of elected officials who hide that they are gay or lesbian while supporting policies most in that community abhor.

I hear the reporters' righteous indignation. I understand their claims of hypocrisy. And yet a reporting experience from years ago makes me urge journalists to proceed with caution, as National Public Radio did in recent days, when reporting people's sexual orientation against their wishes.

As late as 1993, voters in Los Angeles still had not elected an openly gay candidate to the City Council. It seemed a good bet that the barrier would fall that year because a couple of gay candidates were among the front-runners in the 13th District, which includes Hollywood.

The Times assigned me to cover the race, and I soon learned that those candidates, Michael Weinstein and Conrado Terrazas, had been telling other gay activists that former school board member Jackie Goldberg was less worthy because she had never made a formal public declaration that she was a lesbian.

Goldberg's long-term relationship with writer and teacher Sharon Stricker had been an open secret, but some gay activists demanded early in the '93 campaign that she be more out.

I told my editors that this debate seemed to be having a real effect on endorsements and the tone of the race. They told me the Los Angeles Times had a policy against outing anyone.

That led to one of the more awkward interviews, a cockeyed version of ask, but don't necessarily tell.

When I called Goldberg, I reviewed the things gay activists had been saying. I explained that the newspaper wouldn't write about people's sexual orientation against their wishes. The way I recall it, she paused and said: "So are you asking?" And I said, "Well, other people are. I wonder how you feel about answering publicly?"

The candidate said she had never denied "who I am." She talked about her 13 years with Stricker and how they had made an agreement with their son, Brian: They would not deny their relationship if asked, but they would not broadcast it outside the home until after he graduated from high school, an event just a few months away from the start of the campaign.

My story made Goldberg's coming out complete. She went on to be elected the city's first openly gay council member.

Goldberg told me this week, 16 years later, that she had felt angry back then that people wouldn't honor her personal wishes and that one statement to a reporter meant more than how she had conducted her life for years.

"I have never been a person who supported outing, partly because the consequences for people can really be extraordinary," said Goldberg, who went on to serve in the state Assembly. "Some families disown you. Some communities shun you. People lose jobs. Some people might even take after you violently."

With those sorts of possibilities in mind, most mainstream news organizations have forbidden identifying subjects as gay or lesbian without their permission.

But the release this month of the documentary "Outrage" has called that practice into question. The film suggests that journalists have been complicit in allowing some politicians to, in effect, say one thing and do another.

In writing about "Outrage," the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Daily Variety and others repeated the film's identification of politicians as being gay and opposing, for example, gay marriage and homosexuals' opportunity to serve openly in the military.

National Public Radio took another path. It edited out the names of the politicians, which reviewer Nathan Lee had included in his piece for the radio network's website.

Executives at NPR cited a policy against discussing subjects' private lives unless there is a compelling news reason to do so.

Lee argued that he had just such a compelling reason. "NPR's position reinforces part of the critique of what this movie was about," he told the network's ombudsman, "which is the squeamishness of mainstream media to cover or investigate closeted politicians or those rumored to be gay."

No doubt, there's a certain charge in seeing elected officials who hide their true selves exposed. Hypocrisy is a frequent, and righteous, subject for the media.

But rather than merely accept and regurgitate the kind of claims made in "Outrage," each news organization had a responsibility to do more of its own reporting.

Confirming someone's sexual orientation might not be easy. But at least as challenging, and ultimately more important, is measuring whether private behavior so clearly defies public positions that the private behavior should be exposed.

That should be a fairly high standard and one not marked by a bright line.

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