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When the Closet is the Culprit

I’m not really a big fan of overt political documentaries. For the post part, I figure I already know the point of the movie. I usually occupy the same political side of the film, so seeing these movies just confirms things I already know. The content is usually infuriating, and the movies end up getting me pissed-off and bleak over the corruption and destruction and exploitation of everything under the sun. Besides, political documentaries are rarely very innovative cinematically. I prefer more challenging abstract films in which the content is subverted and I have to think and analyze to excavate the political content. But, that’s not to say that political documentaries don’t play an important role, especially in the past decade. I just usually avoid them because of my personal taste preferences.

Nevertheless, I heard some really good things about Kirby Dick’s latest documentary Outrage. Issues of “the closet” and anti-gay legislation are particularly close to me and the people I care about in my life, and Kirby Dick was screening the film in person at The Loft with a post-screening Q&A last Saturday, so I decided to see the film. When I arrived, the theater was packed to the gills with a sold-out audience. If nothing else, it was inspiring to see so many people “coming out” for a film that is about the hypocrisy of closeted gay politicians who promote anti-gay legislation. In this case, the film provided a really inspiring sense of community cohesion and camaraderie, especially here in Arizona where state legislators are moving to end domestic partner benefits.

The movie itself is much more nuanced than I expected. Sure, it has a political agenda, but it doesn’t shove partisan politics down the audiences’ throat. While it definitely targets very specific politicians and political issues to make its point, the overall sense of the movie is broader than just ugly political muck raking. Its overall impact is to show the horrible burden of “the closet” on all gay people in this country – the hypocritical closeted politicians as well as the gay constituents they discriminate against. Overall, the film is a call to come out and to eliminate the closet (an subsequently all closets) more than it is an attempt to crucify politicians.

Kirby Dick did his research in putting together the film. He generated over 300 hours of interview material which he reduced to 90 minutes. He only includes politicians against whom he has obtained substantial evidence and who have a proven track record of hypocrisy and deceiving their own people by promoting anti-gay legislation while they themselves are closeted homosexuals. What makes this film a good example of well-crafted documentary is that it doesn’t just villanize the hypocritical politicians, but rather it shows the damage that the closet can do to gays on both sides of the door. The interview material that Dick chose and how he put the pieces together make the audience think about their personal responses to the issues. The film does a great job of being direct yet nuanced, serious yet humorous. By swinging back and forth through these guises, the audience has to think more independently and complexly about the issues presented. There are many scenes that inspire the audience to laugh, but then we are forced to realize that what we are laughing at really isn’t very funny. It’s actually horrific. For example, we are shown the wife of one closeted gay politician promoting his campaign by supporting family values, heterosexual marriage, and God, and the add is hilariously kitschy and seems campy because of its extremity of point-of-view. However, when we pause and remember that this extremity has led to a fascist anti-homosexual discrimination agenda in this country, the advertisement becomes is no laughing matter.

An interesting example of the way that the film manipulates our tendency to address hate with hate is in its treatment of Larry Craig, the Republican senator who orchestrated a number of anti-gay legislation measures and who was arrested for lewd conduct by soliciting gay sex in a public restroom. He’s an easy guy to hate if you’re gay, but Dick reveals the complexities in Craig’s case and in so doing reveals the closet as the real culprit. Even when busted in the act, Craig denied his homosexuality. Dick shows us interviews with Craig’s past sexual encounters, witnesses of Craig’s acts in restrooms, and interviews with Craig’s wife. All of these materials build to show us a man at battle with himself and his identity. Dick includes a number of press interviews with Craig in which he staunchly denies being homosexual, and the force of his denial is clearly visible. In addition, the film provides background on Craig’s adolescence such as the vehemently anti-homosexual community where he came of age in Idaho in the 1950s. This was a community that not only villanized but demonized homosexuals. In Craig’s mind, there was no choice but the closet, and it seems that he chose a life of politics and promoting anti-gay legislation as a way of protecting himself from his own homosexuality. One gay man in the film compared this phenomenon to his experience of “gay bashing” when he was a teenager so that others wouldn’t find him out and bash him. Beat that which is yourself, and therefore you won’t be the target. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

While the film focuses on outing hypocritical closeted politicians, it also makes clear that the act of outing is a violation. In fact, the treatment of Craig by the press and how he is represented in the film reminds me a lot of the men shown in William E. Jones’Tearoom[insert hyperlink: http://www.williamejones.com/collections/view/11/ ] , the art film that “consists of footage shot by the police in the course of a crackdown on public sex in the American Midwest. In the summer of 1962, the Mansfield, Ohio Police Department photographed men in a restroom under the main square of the city. The cameramen hid in a closet and watched the clandestine activities through a two-way mirror.” In Tearoom, as in the portrayal of Craig in Outrage, you get a real sense of the burden and horror of the closet and the damage it can do. Kirby Dick made a point to note that he only focused on politicians who overtly promoted anti-gay legislation as his targets because outing is such a violation. He even includes some spokespeople from the gay community who oppose outing in the capacity it is done in the film because they feel that outing is an act of violation in all cases, so Dick does a good job of showing the complexity of outing even as it is represented in his own film.

Playing against Craig in the film is New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey who came out as homosexual and resigned from office. His speeches are quite poignant and beautifully depict the torment the closet causes and the freedom that is found when relinquishing it. Most interesting in the McGreevey material is the interview with his wife who insists that she had no idea that McGreevey was gay. She was clearly blindsided and devastated by the discovery that her marriage was an act and a sham to protect McGreevey from his homosexuality so he could have a political career. However, the film is sure to show us that “coming out” isn’t limited to Democratic politicians. It has some pretty entertaining footage of Arizona Republican Representative Jim Kolbe talking about his overwhelming joy over coming out. He is outright jovial about it, and he even relates a humorous story about coming out to John McCain. By combining all these different perspectives, the movie inspires non-partisan self-reflection from the audience. It allows us to see that the hypocritical closeted politicians are also victims of the closet, and while we want to hate them and hiss at them, the movie shows us that there is a bigger problem than these individuals, regardless of their political party. The real problem is the closet and the political culture in this country that institutes it.

This is not to say that some of the politicians shown in this film are not abominable. Certainly there is not much redeemable about former New York City Mayor Ed Koch who comes off as a corrupt, power-hungry dangerous man who banished his young lover (whore) to California so that Koch could get elected. When the lover attempted to come back to NYC, he was threatened by Koch. While he was mayor, Koch staunchly refused to provide resources for the AIDS crisis. His banished young lover eventually died of AIDS. Not much to like in that picture. Even more horrific than Koch is Florida governor Charlie Crist. Outwardly homosexual in college, when Crist was offered a political career, he conveniently adopted the closet to promote his life in politics. Coming off as some kind of nightmare of science fiction, an evil soulless fascist cyborg, Crist is particularly creepy because he is so overtly gay but denies it, and his constituents are willing to accept this lie. Crist has promoted some of the most offensive and egregiously discriminatory anti-gay legislation in the country. He is also a number one contender for the 2012 Republican presidential candidate. The thought of a Crist-Palin ticket is enough to make me jump off the planet.

Crist ended up forfeiting his “bachelor” life and getting married when he thought he was going to be the Republican Vice President pick for the 2008 presidential ticket. His wife looks like some kind of bad plastic surgery Barbie. He’s keeping her around for the future. Speaking of the wives, I would have liked to see/hear more from more of them. The little bits we are given beg so many questions about these women’s perspectives, why they married these gay politicians, what their feelings and motivations are. One theory I have is that women are subjected to extreme public scrutiny just because they are women, especially in more conservative states. Women are supposed to be the good wife, good mother, etc., so the burden for them to maintain the sham is as all-consuming as it is for their closeted husbands. Also, if for some reason they aren’t able to occupy the heterosexual good mother and wife role successfully, perhaps they take shelter in their gay marriages, and the marriages provide a veneer of protection to the wives in the same way that public office provides a veneer of protection to the closeted politicians.

Another particularly effective part of the film is the segment that addresses government response to the AIDS crisis and the number of closeted politicians who played a role in refusing to respond appropriately to the AIDS epidemic. For example, the film notes that the NIH director was a closeted gay who adamantly opposed funding and action to address the epidemic. This is absolutely tragic, that thousands and thousands of human lives were lost due to homophobia and the closet that it promotes. When the closet kills, it certainly needs to be eradicated.

This is why it is important that the film ends with the speech from Harvey Milk in which he calls to all gays to “come out.” A mass coming out and refusal to comply to the confines of the closet are the only way to eliminate the closet. In the end, that is what Outrage is promoting above all else – that we eliminate the cultural and political construction of “the closet” and therefore acknowledge the homosexual population as equal humans with equal rights who are not treated differently than all other citizens, who are not a population that should have their own set of legislation but are subject to the same civic protections and rights as every other person in this country. There should be no closet, and there should only be one set of laws: the ones for everyone – politicians or civilians, Republicans and Democrats, heterosexuals and homosexuals. Ultimately, Kirby Dick is advocating the eradication of all closets and the political powers that institute them. That Kirby Dick manages to use such charged material to bring us to this universal point proves his talent as a documentary filmmaker.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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