The new documentary film Outrage aims to "out" Washington politicians who it contends are hypocritical — voting against gay-rights while privately living a gay lifestyle.
That thesis, from filmmaker Kirby Dick — known for his last documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated — might have proved quite explosive a decade or two ago, when homosexuality was a focal point for angry conservatives in Washington.
At the time, homosexuality was part of the culture wars — a war "for the soul of America," as presidential contender Pat Buchanan called it at the 1992 Republican National Convention. "It was inconceivable back then that there would be openly gay people in government, certainly at any high levels," says former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), who is gay.
But today, as Kolbe notes, five states allow gay marriage — and Washington, he says, has changed a great deal.
"Today it's a total ho-hum that Obama appoints a gay person to this position or that position," he says. "Nobody even raises the question. It's just not an issue."
At least not for some people.
In Some Regions, You Can't Get Elected If You're Out
The movie Outrage contends that even today, many politicians on Capitol Hill live private lives very different from their public ones.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) — one of the first gay lawmakers to come out — says he understands why people stay in the closet. There are many places in the United States, he says, where you just can't get elected if you're out.
"It's certainly clear that if I had been out in 1980, I would have lost," Frank says. "I almost lost because people were guessing. If I'd made it explicit, it wouldn't have been close. I think I got to Washington and I said, 'I'll be publicly ambiguous, privately gay.' Didn't work."
For years, when Frank was asked about his sexuality, he told people he was married to his job.
"Frankly, when you are living this kind of life, in which expressing your normal physical desires for sex is so difficult, it makes you sort of more obsessive about it," Frank says. "You don't have a normal physical life; you don't have a normal emotional life. And I found that instead of the job being a way to deal with the frustrations, the frustrations impinged on the job."
Frank says today, he leads a normal life. He's out, he has a boyfriend — and it's no big deal.
A Schism In Washington's Gay Community
But it's not that easy for everyone, says Rich Tafel, a former leader of the gay group the Log Cabin Republicans.
"If you're a politician," Tafel says, "the two main forces in your life [are] ambition and being liked. That tends to be a pretty good recipe for staying in the closet."
Especially, he says, if you're a Republican.
In recent years, as opposition to homosexuality became an overt rallying point for the GOP, Tafel says, a schism happened in the gay community in Washington. If you were a Democrat, you came out. If you were a Republican, Tafel says, you probably went deeper into the closet.
"As a political weapon, knowing you're gay and work for a Republican could be something I could exploit against you politically," Tafel says. "And there are very few weapons in this town that partisan politics don't use."
Controversy Over 'Outing'
Most of Outrage is devoted to making the case that several high-ranking politicians, almost all of them Republicans, are gay — despite those individuals' denials or refusal to discuss the matter.
Most national gay advocacy groups oppose the tactic of "outing" someone against his or her will. But Frank supports the film, arguing it's justified — because the movie goes after people it contends are closeted gays who vote against gay rights.
Frank says that's akin to exposing an anti-gun politician who owns an Uzi. Or someone who works to make abortion illegal, but still wants to be able to have one.
"Being gay is the only area where you give people a pass — where they are allowed to advocate one set of policies and live totally differently from it," Frank says. "And I think that's the issue. It's not whether or not you're gay. It's hypocrisy."
But Kolbe says it isn't always that simple. "They can have other reasons for casting the votes that they do," he says. "They don't have to be supportive, necessarily, of the entire gay agenda."
So long as being gay remains a political liability, the threat of exposure will be a weapon. And those who try to keep their sexuality secret will be vulnerable to enemies on both sides of the issue.