News & Opinion

Gay rights

Why Outing Will Never Vanquish Gay Shame

The Daily Beast

July 17, 2015

The fury at what gossip website Gawker did to David Geithner, which seemed to most readers to be to aid and abet his entrapment by a male escort, then broadcast the car-crash results to its readers, was a whirlwind of righteous indignation.

Gawker, it was deemed, was guilty of cheap, indiscriminate trashing of a man who was not a public figure, who was not guilty of any kind of hypocrisy (like the heterosexually married politician who votes against LGBT equality, while secretly having sex with members of their own sex)—and what of his family life?

Mr. Geithner had been viciously and unfairly shamed, the consensus went. While his brother may have been well-known, he was not—although Chief Financial Officer of Condé Nast counts as a leading corporate position, and the tangle of paid-for sex, and text negotiation around it, including explicit pictures, is the typical tabloid manna of a sex scandal. Gawker founder Nick Denton still claims that the story is true, but the public interest justification for publishing it is lacking, hence the removal of it from the site.

Away from the fury around the story and its target, are the questions of the curious Had Geithner’s wife ‘known?’ Was there an ‘arrangement’ between them? Or had his life suddenly been blown apart by Gawker’s story? Even if his wife had known about her husband’s attraction to men, the public disclosure of his same-sex proclivities—if the Gawker story is true, and its substance has not been fundamentally disputed yet—would surely open what was previously a private family life to violently wrenching public view.

The shame was all Gawker’s, the outraged chorused. This was inevitable: Geithner may be the brother of the former US Treasury Secretary, but what on earth had he done to merit this exposure?

It is one of the great oxymorons of our time that people have never lived so publicly online—on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—where they market themselves and hone their public identities, yet have never craved and demanded their privacy more.

The internet hordes feast on tittle-tattle and gossip and outrage, sometimes all at once, much of the time one engendering the other two. Yet, the Geithner episode shows how oddly conservative we are. For all the sex, flesh, and irreverence on display, we still expect the internet to subscribe to a notion of fair play—even though the reason we click through it is rooted in a desire to survey the world in a giddy kind of chaos.

But that response has also engendered a fierce collective repudiation about boundaries, which Gawker was deemed to have trampled on Thursday in targeting Geithner. A maturing Internet audience turned on their bratty icon to give it a spanking.

Gawker may have screwed up badly when it came to David Geithner (wrong man, wrong method, wrong justification, wrong everything), but the wellspring of anger it possesses about the closet and its discontents is absolutely valid.

What is really depressing about the episode is that ‘exposing’ or ‘outing’ someone as gay, transported on the conveyor belt of shame that such a revelation comes with, should still carry the charge that it does. When ‘outing’ originated in the early 1990s, with activist Michelangelo Signorile at the fore, its aim was twofold: to shame sexual hypocrites, who said one thing in public and did something else in private, but also to challenge the notion that there was anything shameful in being called ‘gay.’

Those were the days when public figures were ‘accused’ of being gay, as if being gay itself was a crime (and, of course, it was in some places, and still is).