A Case for Outing on All Levels

By Michelangelo Signorile

Originally published on Advocate.com May 11 2010 4:00 AM ET

When antigay California state senator Roy Ashburn came out in March—only after he was busted for drunk driving following a night out at a Sacramento gay bar—he became the latest chapter of a story too many of us are sick of reading.

Ashburn, a 56-year-old Republican from Bakersfield, supported Proposition 8 and voted against gay rights initiatives. He continues to stand by his homophobic record, as do his hypocritical political compatriots—people like Idaho’s former U.S. senator Larry “Wide Stance” Craig.

What was truly surprising in the scandal, however, was the fact that so many people in Sacramento knew Ashburn was gay but chose not to speak out about it. This wasn’t a guy who was soliciting sex in airport restroom stalls; he was out in public, boozing in the gay bars and nightclubs. He was known by many prominent individuals and average folks to be gay.

After Ashburn’s arrest and awkward coming-out, many gay Sacramento residents told media outlets they knew about the secret life of this divorced politician and father of four. An eviscerating post about Ashburn on the blog JoeMyGod, titled “Collusion: People Knew Roy Ashburn Was Gay and They Said Nothing,” raised an important question: When the mainstream media and gay leaders fail to expose hypocrisy, is it time for an army of LGBT bloggers on the local level in every corner of the country to speak truth to power by holding the Roy Ashburns of their communities accountable?

In the context of the evolving national discussion on outing the Ashburn cover-up was quite startling. While Ashburn was hanging out at Sacramento gay bars, like Faces and Badlands, Kirby Dick’s documentary film Outrage had just been released on DVD after opening in theaters and running on HBO throughout 2009. The film (in which I was among those interviewed about the many stories I’ve reported on as a journalist exposing closeted public figures) makes a compelling case for outing antigay politicians—and explains how outing can be both responsible and relevant journalism. As politically sophisticated as California is, one would think many people surely got that message long before Outrage, particularly in the state’s robust LGBT activist community. So why wasn’t Roy Ashburn outed long ago?Two California newspapers apparently had prior knowledge about Ashburn’s sexual orientation. Following Ashburn’s arrest, The Bakersfield Californian reported that it had asked Ashburn in 2009 if he was gay, spurred by rumors that an unnamed Sacramento paper was also hot on the story. Ashburn responded to Californian columnist Lois Henry with nondenial spin, saying details of his personal life were irrelevant. Henry and the paper apparently agreed and decided not to run a story, later arguing that the relevance of Ashburn’s sexuality was “debatable.”

Christopher Cabaldon, the gay mayor of West Sacramento, referred publicly to Ashburn’s sexual orientation in a Facebook status update last fall, writing that “It wouldn’t bother me so bad to see Roy Ashburn at Badlands with a boy if he didn’t have such a bad voting record on gay rights.” He later told me that journalists called him after he posted the comment and that he elaborated on his statement with those reporters, but none of them chose to publish anything. To Cabaldon’s dismay, the story seemed to have died on his Facebook page.

Trusting the mainstream media to actually cover the story, however, is the biggest mistake activists make, says blogger Mike Rogers, “the most feared man” in D.C., ­according to The Washington Post (he was also prominently featured in Outrage for his high-profile outings, including that of Larry Craig, who has denied being gay despite his arrest on charges of seeking sex in a men’s restroom back in 2007).

“Forget about the media,” Rogers says. “They’re not going to be first; they’re just too afraid. And who needs them? In this day and age there is no reason why any politician who is working against gays should be able to get away with it. What’s great about the Web and the power of activism is that people in every location—in the states, in small towns, everywhere—can take matters into their own hands. In the past the media was a barrier, but now you can influence them.”

But one Facebook status update isn’t enough. “It takes work,” Rogers says. “While the Web is an incredibly powerful tool, it takes an extraordinary message, and you have to keep it going.” Only then does the message have the possibility of reaching a crescendo to the point where the media have no choice but to follow.Rogers has certainly seen that happen with his relentless campaigns against closeted members of Congress, including former Virginia representative Ed Schrock. Schrock made headlines in 2004 when he announced he wouldn’t seek reelection after Rogers posted lurid audio messages the congressman had left on a gay sex phone line. Rogers has put state politicians through the wringer too, including Republican South Carolina “bachelor” lieutenant governor Andre Bauer, who has courted Christian conservatives and would have become governor had Mark Sanford stepped down after his adulterous affair became public in 2009. Rogers quoted several sources on his blog who claimed that Bauer was gay. Eventually, the mainstream press in the state picked up the thread, noting that the rumors had been published on “at least 17” blogs. (Bauer, who is now running for governor to replace the term-limited Sanford, denies he is gay.)

It’s true that, unlike state and federal elected officials, local politicians are often not recognizable, even in their own communities. Many people have no idea who their state legislators are, let alone what they look like. But this only underscores why grassroots activists need to pay attention and expose hypocritical elected officials, particularly if more powerful and self-interested gay people are covering for them and blunting media inquiries. West Sacramento’s Mayor Cabaldon notes that unnamed gay and lesbian lobbyists and other prominent LGBT people knew Ashburn was gay and protected him. He told me that several of these individuals angrily complained to him after his Facebook update and after he criticized Ashburn in the media following the state senator’s arrest. Those who protected Ashburn were selling out the community. In that sense, they’re just as guilty as Ashburn.

Every gay person who knows the truth about closeted antigay politicans has a responsibility to speak up, as Mike Rogers does so fearlessly. This is no longer an issue that is debatable. No one’s privacy deserves respect when that person is working against our rights, and none of us should be complicit in keeping the secrets of these detestable individuals. The message has to be sent loud and clear: You are either with us or you are against us.