An American Outing: Two Men Who Changed The Face Of Our Culture

Michael Rogers and Michelangelo Signorile's tactic of outing public figures and anti-LGBT politicians wasn't universally embraced. But it's been integral to the sea change in how we view LGBTQ people.

The year was 2004, and activist Michael Rogers decided to make a profile on early-internet website Gay.com.

“It was kind of a cross between Grindr and OkCupid and The Advocate,” he tells NewNowNext with a chuckle. But Rogers wasn’t there to meet other gay men or form community connections—he was there to uncover anti-gay politicians who were secretly leading gay double lives.

After photoshopping an image with text that read, “Do you know a closeted anti-gay politician who is working against gay rights?” and providing an email address, tip submissions began to roll in. It was then that a friend suggested Rogers launch a blog—a platform that would go on to send shockwaves throughout the Republican party and American public consciousness in the years to come.

Poojah Metah
Michael Rogers

Rogers is one of a handful of LGBTQ activists and journalists who engaged in “outing” during the 1990s and early 2000s. Outing wasn’t necessarily a new practice, with public figures having been outed throughout the course of human history. However, the way in which Rogers and others used outing to transform transparency surrounding the lives of specific anti-gay public figures was certainly new for George W. Bush-era America.

Rogers kept his work to the political realm—and focused on outing politicians and those adjacent to them whose track record actively worked against LGBTQ rights and progress. “I think I sum it up this way best: No community should be expected to harbor its own enemies from within,” he says. “It’s not your job to protect them. It’s your job to turn them in—to let them know.”

Among Roger’s most notable revelations in his work was the outing of anti-LGBTQ U.S. Senator Larry Craig—a full year prior to his arrest for lewd conduct in a men’s restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. (Craig is pictured at the top of this story, with his wife, Suzanne, speaking with the media about his arrest and guilty plea for disorderly conduct in a Minnesota airport in 2007.) He was also responsible for the outing of U.S. Rep. Edward L. Schrock who ended his bid for reelection two weeks after Rogers’ publication, and U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, one year prior to his own public scandal.

Overall, Rogers estimates that he outed 35 anti-gay politicians and high-ranking party officials.

“The work I did was about standing up for a community that George W. Bush and his team, including many closeted gay people, made happen,” Rogers continued. “It was their world. And I don’t know how somebody could sit back and see that and say ‘this is acceptable.’ That’s how I look at it.”

Rogers also thinks that the fact that the majority of politicians he outed were party of the Republican party says less about him targeting the GOP and more about the party itself.

Rogers’ work through the early 2000s, in many ways, built on that of journalist and activist Michelangelo Signorile throughout the 1990s. Signorile, however, did not focus on politicians—and also didn’t view his work as explicitly outing. In fact, he says he always rejected that term. Rather, Signorile talks about his work as pushing journalism to be more equitable in the way it talked about and covered the lives of gay public figures.

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Michelangelo Signorile

“It all rose of the urgency of the AIDS epidemic and how we were invisible within popular culture, within the media,” Signorile explained. He came from the world of gossip columns, where he and his colleagues were told to report on the lives of heterosexual public figures. However, when it came to gay public figures he was told “to just take the information from publicists and put out lies, basically,” he said.

“So, I started to challenge that in my column in OutWeek and, for me, it was always about normalizing the discussion within the media.”

One of Signornile’s most influential reports came in the wake of wealthy American entrepreneur Malcom Forbes’ death when he published a column revealing that the business tycoon was secretly gay. The story blew up—a fairly remarkable accomplishment in a pre-Internet world. And it made headway into most of the major print newspapers of the time.

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Elizabeth Taylor and Malcolm Forbes in 1989 in Tangier, Morocco

“It’s just like unbelievable that there was so much uproar over the outing of a dead man,” Signorile says. “But I then just decided that the truth had to be told because he was this prominent businessman who conservatives loved.”

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Pete Williams

Other reports followed, including a bombshell about Pete Williams, then serving as a spokesperson for the Pentagon, to which Dick Cheney was forced to address on ABC This Week with Sam Donaldson. Also Jodie Foster, David Geffen, and Liz Smith—all of who later came out. Signorile says he ultimately outed around 20 people.

While Rogers and Signorile certainly weren’t the only journalists and activists who took part in this cultural practice of outing public figures and politicians, they were two of the most prominent people involved. Though their work wasn’t without controversy. Outing has always been a polarizing topic—and remains one, but the way it is employed today is radically different than early-2000s America. It’s a practice fraught with a wide array of emotions and opinions—both within the LGBTQ community and outside of it.

However, from Signorile’s perspective, outing has always been about equalizing cultural and social expectations of queer people and the rest of the world. And it is a crucial, lifesaving part of the LGBTQ movement’s history.

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Liz Smith in 1990

“We would never have moved forward if we still treated it as something that is a secret. Something that’s bad. We don’t do that with any other group. We don’t hide the identity… I know that we all, as queer people, have a sympathy for people dealing with the closet. At the same time, our roles as journalists when we are talking about public figures is not to hide or cover up things when relevant to a story. And that is the big question, I think, that people have to grapple with, is when is It relevant to a story?… Because there is nothing wrong with that question.”

James Michael Nichols is a writer, storyteller and the former editor of HuffPost Queer Voices.
@jmn