I have always believed that an elected official’s private life is not a part of the public record. Before and after the Mayor Jim West episode, I have heard colleagues discuss outing legislators who oppose gay rights but are rumored to be gay. What are the ethics in this case? State Senator Ken Jacobsen, Seattle
Your colleagues may ethically out an official only if that official’s being gay is germane to his policy-making. A person who seeks elected office, voluntarily entering the public arena, does surrender some claims to privacy. (Financial disclosure comes to mind.) Some, but not all. An official’s private life should remain private unless he or she makes it relevant to a public position freely taken. A cross-dressing secretary of agriculture who voiced no opinion on the sexual high jinks of soybeans — do legumes engage in high jinks? — would not meet this standard; a gay state senator who opposed gay civil rights would.
I agree with Carl, both that Randy gives a good answer, and that in the current political and media climate, “any expectation of staying in the closet is a joke.”
I too have had sources feed me unsolicited allegations of closeted gay legislators voting against gay rights legislation, and for a variety of reasons, have chosen not run with them. Even politicians deserve a little privacy, and I do not relish the thought of inflicting pain on anyone’s family. Besides, sexual preference is a private matter, and I think it is counterproductive to treat being gay as a scandal.
But I will not promise that my very real misgivings cannot be overcome, and I do not believe that I am alone amongst bloggers in admitting that, given reasonably reliable information — and political relevance — I would reluctantly consider outing a closeted politician. For example, the anti-discrimination bill, HB 1515, failed in the state senate by a single vote; it will surely come to floor again next session, and I’m told there is at least one senator who should think twice before casting another hypocritical vote in opposition.
That Sen. Jacobsen should ask his question in such a blunt and public manner should be viewed as a clear, if subtle, warning shot across the bow of those of his colleagues who know who they are. There are closeted politicians who have strongly opposed HB 1515 and other legislation that would have extended civil rights to the gay community, and if they continue to pander to the religious zealots on the far right, they risk being revealed for what these zealots hate the most: a homosexual.
Personally, I hope it doesn’t come to that. The state GOP leadership could protect its caucus from the personal and political consequences of a high-profile outing by simply arranging for HB 1515 to pass. Indeed, I would hope that Senate Minority Leader Bill Finkbeiner would show some true leadership, and cast the deciding vote himself… a vote, by the way, that would be consistent with the sentiments of his own district. I understand that such a move might cost him his leadership position, but his fellow Republicans should be made to understand that failure to pass HB 1515 could cost some in their caucus even more.
While such threats might represent a coarsening of the public debate, it would be cynical to argue that the decision to out a closeted gay legislator comes anywhere near the moral and ethical dilemma posed by the outing of an undercover CIA operative. It is safe to say that when it comes to the politics of personal destruction, nobody leads the way more boldly than President Bush… and thus Republicans nationwide should be prepared to reap what they have sown.