Mike Rogers of blogActive.com has been riding high since he was proved right in his charges that anti-gay Idaho Sen. Larry Craig (R) was seeking gay sex in public restrooms. In the last few weeks, Rogers has been profiled by the Washington Post, interviewed by cable TV hosts Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews, and called the most feared man on Capitol Hill. The blogosphere has breached the wall of the mainstream media (MSM) that once would have ignored his efforts as unseemly.
I have mixed feelings on the question of outing anti-gay politicians. On the one hand, I agree with Congressman Barney Frank's (D-Mass.) dictum that ''People have a right to privacy, but not to hypocrisy.'' I am as sick as anyone of being demonized by ruthless political operatives to turn out socially conservative voters. On the other hand, I am troubled by outing as a tactic because it capitalizes on homophobia, and it too seems ruthless. Rogers and outing pioneer Michelangelo Signorile reject the term ''outing'' in favor of ''reporting,'' but the latter is less precise.
I encountered Rogers at a reception on Sept. 6 at the Smithsonian Institution honoring 82-year-old gay pioneer Frank Kameny, whose picket signs from the first gay protest outside the White House in 1965 are included in a new exhibit titled ''Treasures of American History.'' Over good food and drinks, the affable Rogers mentioned his next target, another Republican senator. He was praised by several guests, including a disillusioned gay Republican. Rogers acknowledged some awkwardness, as a Republican staffer whom he outed last year stood a few yards away.
As I told Rogers, I am especially opposed to his outing of GOP staffers. Over the years, gay-rights activists have obtained a good deal of useful intelligence from Capitol Hill's informal gay network. Often it was staffers for right-wing Republicans who provided the best information at off-the-record meetings. Apparently, I am not the only one: On Sept. 10, via Washington Post ''Sleuth'' reporter Mary Ann Akers, Rogers announced that he will stop outing staffers. He explained to the Post, ''Enough readers expressed concerns that I have decided to now focus on elected officials, those running for office and to high-level political appointees in the administration.''
Rogers told me that he hates what he does, but he considers it necessary. He thinks it will significantly neutralize the far-right's anti-gay wedge politics. Assuming that is true, I still find it ethically troubling. Vindictiveness hardly seems conducive to expanding support for gay equality, and Rogers' actions smack of vindictiveness even if that is not his intent. You cannot justify playing God by citing the quality of your research.
Looking at Rogers, you might never suspect that he traffics in anyone's sordid secrets. He brings a professional polish to his media appearances. On television he appears relaxed and confident, crisply relays his talking points, and does not stumble or ramble. These skills smoothed his story's transition from the Web to the MSM. Someone who came across as creepy or eccentric would be easier to dismiss.
In January 2006, Rogers sent his then-targeted senator a letter warning him that a vote either for the Federal Marriage Amendment or for the confirmation of Samuel Alito as a Supreme Court justice would lead to the senator's homosexual activities being reported on blogActive.com. Some have suggested that this amounts to criminally punishable blackmail. Legal opinion appears divided on that question, but legality aside, it sure looks like blackmail to me. And how does Rogers avoid arbitrariness in choosing which votes justify outing someone? There was no consensus that Alito was anti-gay when he was nominated, and some evidence to the contrary.
Our movement has seen radical tactics before. In 1971, gay activists zapped the annual convention of the American Psychiatric Association in Washington, and Frank Kameny seized the microphone to denounce the psychiatrists for pathologizing homosexuality. Are we in a comparable moment, when a violation of protocol is needed to get things moving? Or does the use of outing go too far? We need a thoughtful and civil discussion about what effect the use of an inherently negative tactic might have on those who employ it and those on whose behalf it is employed.
It may be that before many socially conservative Americans will reconsider their anti-gay stance, they must become disillusioned with their leaders. Yet they might just as readily react to the shock of outings by hardening their hearts further against gay people. That is something Mike Rogers might want to investigate.