How We Hope Political Outing Works Out

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Way back on Episode 3 of Queer and Queerer, Peterson and I had a discussion about political outing (it starts around 10:34). Our focus was when conservative anti-gay politicians are publicly outed as gay. Peterson took the opinion that outing was a leveraging of homophobia while I argued that it’s an important to bring light to hypocrisy to ultimately minimize the promulgation of homophobia. At one point, I alluded to California Senator Roy Ashburn (without naming him) as a recently outed politician who had, at that time, committed to maintaining his anti-gay platform.

We are now seeing a beautiful mellowing in Senator Ashburn. While he did admit he was gay when he first was arrested for a DUI, he did not at first suggest any interest in changing his anti-gay platform. Fortunately, truth speaks to power, and Sen. Ashburn is now speaking up for the first time in defense of the gay community. Two weeks ago, he took to the California Senate floor to speak against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell:

“I would not have been speaking on a measure dealing with sexual orientation ever prior to the events that have transpired in my life over the last three months,” Ashburn told his colleagues. “However, I am no longer willing or able to remain silent on issues that affect sexual orientation and the rights of individuals. And so I am doing something that is quite different and foreign to me, and it’s highly emotional.”

And now, this weekend, Sen. Ashburn has spoken out more about his change in the Los Angeles Times. And honestly, I’m impressed. I think this is a wonderful case for political outing. Autumn Sandeen (in the piece linked above) called it his DADT floor speech sideshow, but I think it’s a bit more poignant than that. He is certainly still accountable for his years of anti-gay efforts, but the fact that he’s grown since his humiliating outing is, I think, a remarkable thing. In yesterday’s piece in the Los Angeles Times, he offers some explanation and an apology:

The best I can do is to say that I was hiding. I was so in terror I could not allow any attention to come my way. So any measure that had to do with the subject of sexual orientation was an automatic “no” vote. I was paralyzed by this fear, and so I voted without even looking at the content. The purpose of government is to protect the rights of people under the law, regardless of our skin color, national origin, our height, our weight, our sexual orientation. This is a nation predicated on the belief that there is no discrimination on those characteristics, and so my vote denied people equal treatment, and I’m truly sorry for that.

Now, I’m not sure the LGBT community is eager and ready to instantly forgive all of Senator Ashburn’s transgressions. I certainly won’t try to accept his apology on behalf of anybody. But, I definitely think we now owe him our complete sympathy and support. He was living a life of fear, and while we are not at all pleased with the outcome, I think we can all understand what he might have been experiencing.

I’m just trying to tell the truth from the reality of the life I’ve lived, which has been an amazing life. I have had the privilege of serving in elective office for 26 years and dealing with important legislation, and I did so with a huge secret and in many ways a career built upon lies and deceit. Now that the truth is known, actually I am comfortable talking about these things.

He gets that he was wrong. He gets the importance of using the freedom he now has to speak out about these issues in the way he always should have. He even seems to get that the fact he was outed was ultimately a good thing for his life.

I’m sensing relief now. I had not consciously decided to come out, but there’s no doubt looking back that I had become increasingly bold about attending gay events, like pride festivals, and going to dance clubs and bars. Last year I attended Las Vegas Pride and San Diego Pride.

Senator Ashburn also took time to explain what led him to become so closeted, so afraid of his true identity:

Something happened that I guess caused me to realize that. When I was in sixth grade, the police had a raid in the sand dunes [near San Luis Obispo] and a bunch of gay men were arrested, probably charged with indecent activity. That sticks in my mind — the publicity and the shame around it. One of my teachers was one of the people. The talk among the kids, the talk among the adults, the talk in the community, the press — at that time the choice was pretty clear: If you were gay and open, it was a life of shame, ridicule, innuendo about molesting and perversion. It was a dark life. Given that choice of whether you come out or whether you’re in secret, I mean, there really wasn’t a choice.

I expect it will be many generations before it’s possible to fully escape such messages of shame. If we work with individuals to escape that fear and support them when they do, I think we have the best chance of moving forward. I’m proud of Senator Ashburn for the progress that he’s made since his outing and I truly hope he can finally be at peace with himself. At the same time, I hope he never really feels forgiven for his decades of anti-gay work, and spends the time and power that he yet has to make up for the hurt he caused.

As Peterson and I agreed, political outing can be messy and morally ambiguous. Still, I think the case of Senator Ashburn speaks to the importance of interrupting hypocrisy and supporting individuals who have previously been afraid to come out.

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