Proper Manners: Outing Closeted Legislators?

Proper manners say outing is a violation of a person's privacy and not to do it. But when it comes to antigay politicians who lead double lives, Emily Post might make an exception.

BY Steven Petrow

May 15 2009 11:00 PM ET

Many folks laugh when I tell them I've written a manners and etiquette book, usually thinking it's simply about stationery and place settings or that it's a tome for snobs or what's left of the idle rich. Hardly. In fact, the controversial new documentary Outrage, which outs a closet of elected officials, raises the perfect manners conundrum: Is naming names of closeted politicians good or bad manners and what does that answer say about our contemporary values and mores?

In recent decades, outing -- the practice of revealing another person's sexual orientation -- has been rightfully frowned upon by most in the LGBT community because to come out had been such an intensely personal issue with potentially catastrophic consequences. In The Essential Book of Gay Manners & Etiquette , which I wrote in the mid 1990s, my thinking on the "manners of outing" clearly reflected that other time ­- a time before Ellen , Will & Grace , and the three states where same-sex marriage is currently legal (and the three more where it soon will be).

"Outing a colleague -- intentionally or unintentionally -- is a violation of that person's privacy. Don't do it!"

Good manners, in this regard, clearly sided on the side of privacy.

But times change and so do manners. These days, when being LGBT seems practically commonplace (at least in many parts of the country) and where a majority of people under 40 are in favor of marriage equality, how we understand outing is also morphing. Kirby Dick's film Outrage certainly leaves no prisoners as he squarely takes aim at lawmakers who are believed to be closeted gays. The film's trailer notes that these politicians lead "secret double lives" because they maintain clandestine sexual liaisons with men, but also fight against same-sex marriage, vote against AIDS research, and denounce adoptions by LGBT parents. And, indeed, names are named.

Now, when we look at politicians who lead double lives, and whose actions hurt the LGBT community, how can proper manners side with hypocrisy and vilification even when the right to privacy is still an issue? The late Emily Post, the metaphoric mother of manners in this country, would, I believe, come to the same understanding. In the 1928 edition of Etiquette she trounced hypocrites: "[I]t is not the people who make small technical mistakes or even blunders who are barred from the paths of good society, but those of sham and pretense whose veneered vulgarity at every step tramples the flowers in the gardens of cultivation…"

Tags: Politics

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