Girl On Girl: The Inequality In Being Outed

If you were anywhere on the internet in the past four days, you probably read something about Gawker’s outing of a C-level executive at one of the biggest media companies in the world. In case you missed it, Gawker published the details and text messages of the executive trying to hire a male escort during a quick trip to Chicago. After the escort realized that his potential client was a man with power and connections, he tried to ask for a favor, was rejected, and he took his story to Gawker. Gawker published it and the story was met with a huge backlash that made me wonder if I had been reading the same site as everybody else for the last 10 years.

Girl On Girl: The Impermanence Of Celebrity Sexuality
Remember when Paris Hilton hooked up with other women? Probs not.

The story made me uncomfortable. Gawker outing a powerful figure at a powerful company wasn’t surprising, but what was surprising was that a site founded by an openly gay man was publishing a story whose major draw and shock value was based on the fact that it was a male hiring a male escort. Gossip sites breaking stories about executives having affairs or hiring prostitutes aren’t new, but focusing on the gay part feels cheap and easy and outdated for a site that produces good journalism. It would have done more for the story and the discussion thereafter if the gender of the escort wasn’t highlighted so prominently and the subject was treated exactly as it would have been if the escort was female.

It’s been a long time since outing someone felt like a witch hunt. In the past few decades, this kind of guerilla outing was brought on by the gay community “for the greater good” on our way to equal rights. Involuntary outing was described as “the equalizer” by Gabriel Rotello, the publisher of OutWeek. During a time where the stigma attached to being gay was so negative and the AIDS crisis felt overlooked, it put “gay” and “straight” on the same wavelength. Maybe you hated gay people, but look, your favorite actor, Richard Chamberlain, is gay, and the publisher of Forbes magazine, Malcolm Forbes, is gay, so how do you feel now? Vengeance outings were also used to combat famous anti-gay religious figures and politicians who were caught soliciting sex with other males. Outing was politically-charged, described as a new kind of McCarthyism, and often debated. Were these really the kinds of people that we wanted to represent the gay community to the rest of the public?

Forcing someone out of the closet, whether to bring visibility to gay people or point out hypocrisy, was oft-debated. Anybody who felt that kind of shame over their sexuality wasn’t really going to do a lot to advance gay rights. By forcing people out of the closet, it could be reinforcing the public’s view of homosexuality as a stigma.

We live in an era now where coming out doesn’t have to be a big to-do with an emotional talk with all of your friends or, if you’re famous, a big speech and the cover of a magazine. Coming out is as easy as using a gender-specific pronoun in the middle of a sentence. More often than not, your friends won’t flinch.

We expect our journalists to view sexuality the same way. If anything, we should expect our best journalists to treat sexuality in a way that furthers equality. Presenting the gender of the escort as a salacious detail further solidifies the concept of “straight privilege.” Would Gawker have published the article if the escort was female? Maybe. It’s a media company that has a blog dedicated to commenting on the media and the subject is the CFO of a major media company. But would people have cared?

The backlash to the story trended on Twitter, caused two editors to quit in protest when the story was taken down, and prompted calls for the firing of the writer of the story. Stories of private people having their affairs exposed is nothing new. We relished in Donald Sterling’s downfall (probably because he was a racist), but a Google search yields several stories on neutral people in less powerful positions having heterosexual affairs, getting caught, and it is never met with outrage. There are a couple casual comments about the dissolution of a marriage or some jokes about getting caught, that’s it. The stories are quickly forgotten.

There are also stories about major executives of multi-billion dollar companies who are caught in affairs or with prostitutes who were forced to resign from their positions. High-level executives who you had probably never heard — those were the people who were vilified for their extramarital affairs, not the journalists that covered them.

In the same way that I wonder if Gawker would have covered the story had the subject been heterosexual, I also wonder if the backlash would have been so strong if they had. When we talk about the story, we use the word “outed” and dissenters talk about “ruining a man’s life” or “ruining the family.” We’re empathetic. If it was a heterosexual affair, I can’t help but think the words we would use are “philandering” or “exposed” and talk about how “he embarrassed his family” or “he ruined his marriage.” In the heterosexual affair, he is responsible for the destruction his actions brought. In this situation, it’s the journalist.

When trying to explain this difference to friends, it’s difficult to prove my point. It’s hard to reference similar situations when stories of men getting caught cheating on their wives is so commonplace and the only comparable and memorable scenarios are with politicians. Fortunately, the hackers who went after Ashley Madison give a pretty good example of how different the reaction can be.

Ashley Madison is a site that markets its security and discreetness as the perfect online dating solution for people seeking affairs. They were recently hacked and the hackers are threatening to leak all the information if the sites don’t stay offline. Most of this is in response to shady business practices, but the hackers don’t feel sympathy towards all the users they’re about to expose (or the families they might ruin), using the defense that “they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion.” That doesn’t sound that far off from now-former Editor-in-Chief Max Read’s defense of publishing the Gawker story: “[G]iven the chance gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives.” Yet, the general reaction to the Ashley Madison story is to laugh at the misfortune of the users and claim that it’s an act of karma.

Why is one person’s privacy more important than 37 million people? The difference in reaction makes me feel like being gay is still seen as a novelty. It’s fucked up to cheat on your wife with another woman, but if you cheat on her with a man, it’s an interesting story and we’ll feel bad for you.

You can see this on the series “Grace and Frankie.” It’s a new Netflix comedy and it’s awesome. People love it, it’s written by a female, and it has Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in it. I love it and I will support both of those women in everything they do. The premise of the series is how two women carry on after their husbands announce that they want a divorce to marry each other. The husbands have been cheating on their wives for 20 years, but the reactions don’t feel equivalent. Had it been a man cheating on his wife with another woman for 20 years, I doubt that they would be recurring characters on the show with their own storyline. Instead, the husbands are lovable characters, their relationship is endearing, but the backlash to their affair (or lack thereof) seems unrealistic. It feels like the fact that they’re gay excuses the origin of their relationship.

I’ve seen this in real life, too. A group of married friends who have known each other for decades – grew up together, got married around the same time, had children around the same time – recently went through a situation where two of the couples got divorced. Both were because of a cheating husband, one with a woman and one with a man. The husband who cheated with a woman has been completely ostracized from the group of friends that he grew up with. Meanwhile, the husband who cheated with a man kept his distance for awhile, but is now back on friendly terms with the group of friends (and his wife). The lack of parallelism in the situations seems kind of offensive.

Equal rights mean equal reactions to equal actions. I want to be held to the same standard as a straight person if the public has to judge my relationship. I don’t want to be trivialized because of my sexuality. Sure, there’s an argument that cheating on your partner with someone of the same sex is more excusable because you can’t control your sexuality. But, I don’t feel like being gay exempts me from treating my partner with the same respect if our relationship was heterosexual. Real equality means being held to the same expectations as anybody else.

Morgan Cohn is a recent LA transplant to NY, splitting her time between working in digital publishing, writing, and discovering what seasons are. Follow her on Twitter!