When is it okay to out a gay person: Lessons from Gawker and Larry Craig scandals

As a journalist or commentator, it is important to understand what you can and cannot do with your knowledge of someone’s gayness.

ByVikram Johri
When is it okay to out a gay person: Lessons from Gawker and Larry Craig scandals
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In June 2007, then Idaho senator Larry Craig was arrested following a sex sting in a bathroom inside the Minneapolis airport. The sting was not directed at him even though he became its unwitting victim. The aim was to investigate claims by users of the washroom that lewd behaviour of some sort, euphemism for gay sex, was going on in the stalls.

To his misfortune, Craig solicited an undercover cop and was promptly arrested. The news spread like wildfire through the American political landscape, not least because Craig had by then established himself as an old-style Republican who repeatedly spoke up against homosexuality and gay rights. After the scandal, he stayed on and completed his term, but his political career was finished.

He got plain unlucky that night, but given that he may have shown such predilections in the past, would it have been appropriate for a media house to set up a sting to specifically uncover his sexuality? The answer to this question takes us to a recent story in Gawker that raised a great storm online, so much so that the story was pulled down within a day.

The Gawker story, published the Thursday before last, outed David Geithner, the CFO of Conde Nast, as gay after an escort approached the website with details of an aborted encounter between him and Geithner. Apparently, the escort had figured out who he was dealing with (apart from his position at Conde Nast, Geithner is also brother to former US treasury secretary Tim) and had sought Geithner’s help in resolving a personal legal issue. Geithner, who is married to a woman and has two children, declined any assistance to the escort and cancelled their meeting. The escort then decided to extract his pound of flesh by approaching Gawker with the story.

The question is whether there is a certain line that the media should not cross in these cases. Geithner may have been up to something that cannot be called entirely ethical, but it was nobody’s business but his.

Craig, on the contrary, was a public person whose utterances on homosexuality could swing the debate around the issue among the broader public. In both cases, privacy was breached, but I would reckon that it was a laudable aim in Craig’s case while it was sheer voyeurism in Geithner’s.

In April this year, Priya Vedi, a doctor at AIIMS, committed suicide after leaving a long note on her Facebook page that blamed her gay husband for mental trauma. At the time, I had written a piece in Newslaundry arguing in favour of those publications that had chosen to reveal her and her husband’s names. I offered two reasons for this: one, with her death, the idea that her identity not be disclosed for reasons of propriety failed to stand muster, especially since the case could throw light on an urgent issue; and two, her stark testimony in her suicide note called for a certain shaming of the husband who had allegedly refused to grant her any conjugal rights.

Truth be told, I am less taken with the second reason today. While the sanctity of the suicide note as an instrument of apportioning guilt remains unchallenged, and while I remain convinced of the guilt of Vedi’s husband, I agree with Newslaundry columnist Rajyasree Sen, who said in reference to my piece in the NL Hafta episode of April 22, that in a society like ours, to call out someone’s homosexuality before the full facts of the case have emerged is problematic.

This, I repeat, does not seem to be true in Vedi’s case, since I know of people who had seen her husband’s profile on gay meet-up sites, but I agree with Sen’s larger point about exercising greater caution when speaking on such issues.

This is also because sometimes the issues can get mixed. One of the first pieces I wrote in the aftermath of Vedi’s suicide was a stringent excoriation of her husband. My critique stemmed from my discomfort with his closeted status and what his actions had unleashed in his marital life.

I had not intended to shame him for his homosexuality, but that is how my critique came to be read by the less enlightened. While I had wanted the case to start a conversation on Section 377, which forces a number of gay men in this country to get married to women, my piece ironically fed into a homophobic wave that the case let loose and which ultimately failed to distil my essential argument.

That is the danger in talking incautiously about homosexuality. As a journalist or commentator, it is important to understand what you can and cannot do with your knowledge of someone’s gayness.

If you have information about someone like Craig, who has stayed in the closet while using his office to demean gays, sure, go ahead and make it public. But if the information does not serve a public end there is no reason that you should forcibly out someone.

And here is the rub. Some in Gawker defended the Geithner story on the pretext that there was a case for outing a gay man married to a woman since that would boost the cause of greater visibility. But this argument is specious. Coming out is a deeply personal journey and no one has the right to dictate when and how it ought to be done. When you out someone against their will, you play into a sensationalist homophobic space that strips the gay person of both agency and dignity.

And so, even if we were to give Gawker the benefit of the doubt and believe that they filed the Geithner story with noble aims—which, to be sure, I doubt—it would still not count as a good reason. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. You may fool yourself into believing that you are shining the spotlight on a larger issue but your action will have consequences, and you would not have helped by putting the cart before the horse.

Like everything else, stories about homosexuality must bow to the context in which they take place. Especially in a country like ours, where gayness remains a taboo topic, out men like me or the liberal intellectual crowd broadly need to ensure that our voice generates more light than heat. That is something we should remember when talking about LGBT issues.

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