Hear Me Out
|by Mubarak Dahir|
|Should Media 'Out' Public Officials?
No one can really know what dark thoughts filled the mind of former Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele as he walked into the lobby of the Miami Herald shortly after 6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 27.
That's when the controversial former commissioner made national headlines by putting a semiautomatic pistol to the right side of his head, waiting for police to arrive, and pulling the trigger.
It was also the same day that the Miami New Times, a weekly alternative paper, published a detailed news report titled, "Tales of Teele: Sleaze Stories." In that story, Arthur Teele was outed.
The voluminous article detailed allegations of corruption, drug use and paying prostitutes for sex.
Included in the story were accounts, as given to police, of a male transvestite prostitute who said he had numerous encounters with Teele, in which Teele paid him for sex.
His accounts were sexually graphic, including details of times when he says he was anally penetrated by Teele, and when he says Teele was anally penetrated by him.
In no uncertain terms, the paper outed Teele as engaging in homosexual behavior.
Of course, the story also recounted allegations of fraud and corruption. But these were nothing new to Teele.
In the past year, he had been mired in both federal and state corruption charges. Teele's most serious legal problems stemmed from more than two dozen legal counts against him and an electrical contractor, in which Teele was charged with lying to get more than $20 million in contracts at the Miami International Airport earmarked to go to minority businesses.
In fact, the former commissioner had been charged with criminal offenses three times in the past year, mostly around allegations of fraud and money laundering. In March, the beleaguered former politician was also convicted in state court of threatening a police officer in yet another corruption investigation. All this was spelled out in the Miami New Times article.
But the most salacious, headline-grabbing portion of the story was clearly the revelation of Teele's sexual escapades.
It seems hard to believe that it was a mere coincidence that Teele shot himself in the head the same day the newspaper's account of his same-sex rompings hit the streets.
The whole ugly episode has once again sparked a national debate on the ethics of outing.
The question of whether or not a person's sexual orientation and sexual behavior is fair game for public reporting is a question with a long history of debate.
Most "mainstream" publications continue to refuse to report whether or not someone is gay or bisexual against a person's will. This rule is surprisingly adhered to, even when hypocrisy is the issue beyond sexuality.
For example, gay or lesbian politicians who themselves promote anti-gay agendas, or who work to defeat gay-supportive bills, are routinely given a free pass by the "mainstream" press. It is unfathomable that a politician who, for example, crusades against abortion rights would not be confronted by the media if a reporter found out the politician's wife or daughter secretly had an abortion.
In the modern world of ultra-scrutiny of public figures, particularly politicians and celebrities, almost nothing seems out of bounds when it comes to divulging the juiciest details of a person's private life or past: Legal woes, emotional outbursts, sex scandals, drug use, financial problems, personality flaws, even medical conditions. In this day and age, reporters at "mainstream" publications don't shy away from digging into the most personal of facts.
Except when it comes to the gay thing.
In the mainstream press, there is still almost universal avoidance of tackling the gay and lesbian question.
Part of the reason may be in the history of outing itself. Traditionally, outing was used by anti-gay people as a means to ruin a gay person's life. The revelation that someone was homosexual was so horrible, it meant their demise.
Today, representatives of the "mainstream" media most frequently say they do not ask whether someone is gay because it is "personal"or that sexual orientation is "irrelevant."
Both excuses are malarkey.
In this day and age, it's difficult to imagine anything being too personal. The standard should be applied evenly.
The claim that a gay person's sexual orientation is irrelevant may be even more of a farce. When examining the life of a politician or celebrity or newsmaker of any kind, there will be all kinds of influences on his or her life that work to shape who that person has become. For most gay and lesbian people, our sexual orientation is part of the critical core of our identity, and it permeates every aspect of our lives. To deny its relevance in shaping a public figure is, in fact, an insult.
Many editors and reporters at "mainstream" publications believe they are being pro-gay when they fail to investigate someone's sexual orientation. Many actually believe they are somehow helping to "protect" the person in question.
But this unparalleled refusal to inquire about whether or not a public figure is gay doesn't help gay and lesbian people. Indeed, it harms us tremendously.
Refusing to ask whether or not someone is gay perpetuates the notion that answering affirmatively is the ultimate shame.
I do not pretend to know what possessed Arthur Teele to feel that a bullet in the head was preferable to people knowing he had sex with a man.
But I do know the Miami New Times isn't responsible for Teele's death. If anything, the conspiracy of silence in the "mainstream" media is far more of a culprit when it comes to contributing to an atmosphere of shame around sexual identity.
Of course, private citizens shouldn't be outed without good reason. When to come out remains a personal and private decision for each person to make in his or her own time.
When it comes to people in the public eye, we can't have one set of rules for straight people, and another set for gays.
There's no shame in asking if someone is gay. Indeed, it's a disgrace not to.
Mubarak Dahir, can be reached at MubarakDahir@aol.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 11 August 12, 2005