Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Outing, Privacy and The Frank Rule

Despite the fact that, to put it mildly, I’m thrilled that the number of states where I can get legally married doubled in a little under a week, I haven’t had much to say on here lately, mostly because of end of the semester work and general life craziness. But the occasional philosophical and sociological trains of thought do come up, it’s just a matter of whether or not I have the energy to write them down after everything else that's on my plate. Nonetheless, I’ll try to keep this going with the occasional update, of which this is one.

In my Philosophy of Race & Gender class we had a discussion about the outing of gay, lesbian and bisexual people (and presumably trans people as well, though this was not discussed in this particular case) and whether it is appropriate to out these people and under what circumstances. My position is that under most circumstances it's not appropriate to out someone without their permission, since outing a person who is not ready to be outed is fundamentally taking the control of that event away from them, and I can say from personal experience that the process of outing is terrifying, and being outed without your permission increases that terror substantially. But I disagree that outing is bad in all circumstances, especially in the case of a politician who engages in gay behavior in secret but uses their political power to persecute other LGBT people. In this discussion I cited The Frank Rule, coined by and named after the Congessional Representative from my home state and the chair of House Financial Services Committee, the one and only Barney Frank.

Congressman Frank is famous for several things: First, being grumpy, second, having a razor sharp sense of humor, third, for being a stanch critic of government spending, and fourth, being openly gay since 1981 and an outspoken LGBT advocate, and I've had the good fortune to meet Congressman Frank in person at a talk he gave at the University of Massachusetts many years ago. My father took me to this talk, and though I was too young to really understand what he was talking about or what the fact that he was gay really meant, I remember he was funny, and that despite my expectations I was not in fact bored by what he was saying. I mention this because I've also had the dubious honor of interrupting fellow Massachusetts Congressman John Olver at a talk he was giving, though I was even younger at the time and Congressman Olver is by all accounts both incredibly intelligent and extremely boring.

Back to the subject, The Frank Rule can best be summed up by the Congressman himself:
"I think there's a right to privacy. But the right to privacy should not be a right to hypocrisy. And people who want to demonize other people shouldn't then be able to go home and close the door and do it themselves."
It's a simple enough concept, don't be a hypocrite. I think we can all agree that there are few things worse than someone who crusades against something one minute and participates in it themselves the next. But what stuck out to me in light of today's class was how Congressman Frank makes a distinction between privacy and secrecy, which was one of our topics.

It has been interpreted that we right to privacy guaranteed in our Constitution, and in the LGBT rights movement this has been key to throwing out discriminatory laws and practices that intrude on that right. Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case that invalidated all the remaining sodomy laws in the U.S. and basically said that the government has no right to regulate the sex lives of two consenting adults. I could go into just what "sodomy" is, but that's another "What Does That Really Mean?" post on its own. When it comes to privacy in the case of outing, it becomes a philosophical and normative question, which happen to be my specialties.

"Privacy" in the purest definition of the word is simply to be free from unwanted intrusion. When you compare this to the idea of "Secrecy", or the intentional concealment of something, it becomes clear that why most secrets are considered private not all private things are secret. I may have privacy in a bathroom stall, but it's no secret what I'm doing in there. When you approach outing as an issue privacy and secrecy overlap, and if someone does not want to be outed the question then becomes whether that part of them is considered private or if it's a secret that is fair game.

In most cases I'm inclined to say that no one has the right to out you without your permission. One analysis I read on the issue tried to address the points of privacy and secrecy, but in it the author failed to acknowledge the vast and varied consequences the process of being outed carries with it. You can lose your job, be thrown out of your home, disowned, beaten up, and even killed, and because these events are far too common the process of outing carries with it an extreme fear. LGBT people have to navigate their lives based on who they are and are not out to, and with just about every relationship there's the question of whether it's safe to be out to this person. I have another post in the works that discusses issues like this and how they're symptomatic of heteronormativity, but that's for another day, and all we need to know now is that it's a downright scary concept.

I'm in no way suggesting that politicians and other public figures who are outed do not face these same issues, but because of their positions their lives are already in the in-between space between public and private, and the issue becomes more complicated. Politicians especially are meant to represent the values of the communities they represent, so intentional deceit and secrecy on their part has an element of power abuse that goes with it.

In cases where a closeted politician is staunchly anti-gay it takes on an even more malicious bent, and besides deceiving their constituents a closeted anti-gay politician creates a cycle of self destruction through their actions that enables further discriminatory action to take place. While politicians are not exempt from a right to privacy merely because of their positions, their privacy is of a different sort and carries broader consequences, especially in cases of deceit. As awful as it is to lie to your family and friends, when you lie to your constituents and work to demonize and disenfranchise an already vulnerable group while engaging in that same behavior yourself the weight of the hypocrisy becomes much greater. As much as I realize that these politicians must go through great mental anguish because of their hatred for themselves, my sympathy stops at the point where they channel that hatred towards causing harm to people in the same position, and I believe they should be accountable for their actions if they are indeed shown to be engaging in hypocritical behavior as they would be in any context where their behavior is shown to be contrary to their rhetoric.

In short, I agree with Congressman Frank. I have no right to out someone without their permission, but in cases of hypocrisy and abuse of power the right of the people to know what their representatives are doing outweighs their right to keep secrets as long as we want an accountable and transparent system of government. You can do what you want with your life, but once you start using your own issues to restrict mine I draw the line. Or to quote the Congressman:
I take it personally when people decide to take political batting practice with my life.

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