The battle over the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) has led some Washington gay activists to out staff members of federal lawmakers who support the amendment and in the process, ignite a debate on whether outing a public employee furthers the community’s political goals.
“Are we trying too hard to play fair when the other team is always playing foul?” Aravosis wrote on his web page in March. “Is it time for a new outing campaign?”
Whisper campaigns about the sexuality of federal legislators are part of Capitol Hill culture, but the FMA has motivated some people to expose the personal lives of others in a way that was once considered out of bounds. This June, a flyer circulated at the city’s Pride festival urging people to e-mail the names of closeted gay lawmakers and staffers to an online address.
The increasing anti-gay rhetoric broadcast by supporters of the FMA also seems to have hardened attitudes of activists who otherwise would take a less militant approach to legislative lobbying.
“It’s outrageous and despicable that gay people would help members of Congress pass an anti-gay amendment to the Constitution,” Aravosis said in an interview, signaling a shift from his March efforts merely to facilitate a discussion about outing. “People like that deserve our scorn and public disapproval, at the very least.”
Mike Rogers, a former development director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, now self-employed, has begun phoning the offices of lawmakers who support the FMA and also employ gay staffers, whether closeted or out. Rogers tactic is to first request to speak with the legislator to query them about their support of the FMA despite supervising gay employees. Rogers said he has been unsuccessful in getting any lawmaker on the phone, but has reached senior staff in several offices. In those conversations, he said, he has outed closeted staffers to their colleagues.
Rogers said he has also confronted gay staffers about working for anti-gay politicians. Rogers argued that he is not outing people who live entirely closeted lives, and doesn’t feel that what he is doing is ethically wrong, or even controversial.
“We’re not actually outing people we realized,” he said. “We’re just kind of letting people know about these people who already live out gay lives. Only a few people in their office are unaware that they are gay.”
Among the offices Rogers has contacted are those of Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Tex.), Rep. Jim Oxley (R-Ohio), and Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.). The call to Stenholm’s office resulted in a harassment complaint filed against Rogers with the Capitol Hill police. Rogers said that he has called three other lawmakers’ offices as well.
Rogers and his sympathizers have also posted the names of these gay staffers on chat room lists and elsewhere on the Internet.
“We want to build up pressure and let them know people are tired of their sexual orientation being used to rev up the radical right in this election,” he said.
These tactics have not been roundly welcomed, perhaps especially among larger gay organizations fighting the FMA. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national lobby for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, and the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay conservatives, firmly oppose outing Hill staff.
“Coming out is a personal journey and everyone deserves to come out in their own time and in their own way,” Cheryl Jacques, HRC’s president said. Jacques herself faced questions when she was appointed to lead HRC about having come out only in 2000, eight years after she was first elected to the Massachusetts Senate.
In a statement that perhaps betrays the gay community’s split over the issue, Rogers claims several of his sources work at HRC or Log Cabin.
GLASS Caucus, a professional organization for gay and lesbian Senate staffers, has also officially condemned the outing campaign. Co-founder Lynden Armstrong, an aide to Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, said the effort is ill-conceived and damaging to those who are not in a position to make policy, but are required to adhere to a particular lawmaker’s political stance.
“Outing someone like this is taking away from them a very personal decision, and placing them in a spot they are not emotionally ready to be in,” Armstrong said. “No one has the right to do that to someone else. They could be fired. Those who do it have either had an easy life or forgotten what it’s like.”
Rogers said that he is not outing people just for the sake of doing it, “going after every janitor on the Hill,” but, rather, people he sees as integral to spreading the anti-gay views of the radical right.
“When you are the chief of staff or the press spokesperson, I think you are in the public realm,” he said. “When you’re out there trashing your community on behalf of your member, at that point for me you’ve stepped over the edge of fairness.”
Armstrong countered that the presence of a gay staff person can eventually soften an anti-gay lawmaker’s stance by putting a human face on gay issues.
“Outing a staffer has the potential to remove any contact the member has with gays and lesbians,” he said.
But Rogers said that potential influence is a primary motivation for his calls to lawmakers.
“Positive attitudes toward gays and lesbians go way up when they personally know someone who’s gay,” he said. That’s why it’s important they tell their boss—their boss who is spewing hatred.”
With the Senate expected to vote on the FMA on July 12, Rogers plans to make more calls to Capitol Hill as well as to closeted appointees in the Bush administration and their supervisors.