October 16, 2006
The sex that dare not be asked about
Posted by: Chris
For years, the mainstream media deliberately avoided reporting on Mark Foley's personal life. Now that the Florida congressman has resigned in disgrace over a sex scandal, it's no holds barred.
In its cover story last week, Newsweek quotes an anonymous "friend" to report that Foley's double life included a series of affairs with men who, like Foley, already had boyfriends. That way, they both had something to lose; "mutually assured destruction," he supposedly joked.
Yet in the same issue, Newsweek took heat from readers angry that the previous week's cover story on photographer Annie Leibovitz "straight-washed" her long-term relationship with now-deceased author Susan Sontag. The lengthy profile referred to Sontag only as "the person [Leibovitz] was closest to." (The tiny credit on this photo of Leibovitz, from the Newsweek cover story, indicates it was taken by Sontag.)
Why is the media so willing to dig into the personal lives of gay public figures when the subject is seedy, and so reluctant to even ask "the question" of public figures whose lives aren't tainted by scandal?
Follow the jump for the questions Barry Manilow and Luther Vandross won't answer:
For years, the press played along with George Michael, never reporting about his personal life (with men) until he was arrested for soliciting sex from a male cop in a public restroom. Now the British tabloids regularly stalk the pop star into the public parks of London, photographing him one recent night as he emerged from the bushes and even interviewing his pudgy sex partner.
Meanwhile, a gay writer recently bragged to me about his "personal" profile of Barry Manilow, in which the singer talked at length about his latest CD and loving life in Las Vegas. But even though the story was pitched to the mainstream and gay press, the writer didn't dare ask the man who "writes the songs of love and special things" why he is a lifelong bachelor.
Same story with Luther Vandross, who spent his career touching millions with his songs about love and loss, and yet somehow went to his tragically early grave without being asked whether he ever found love for himself.
When I asked Manilow's profiler about the omission, the openly gay writer said it was simply "understood" that he would not broach the subject, even though Manilow got his start in the gay baths of New York in the early '70s, accompanying a young Bette Midler on piano.
In other cases, that nudge-nudge, wink-wink is more explicit. In the late '90s, comedienne Paula Poundstone cashed in on her popularity with lesbians by scheduling a concert in Atlanta the same weekend as the city's massive gay pride festival. Her publicist offered interviews to the local gay press on condition she not be asked "the question."
A few years later, of course, the public learned of the rumors about Poundstone's sexual orientation after she was arrested for lewd acts with her adopted child. After she pled no contest to reduced charges and regained custody of her children, the press returned to its previous "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in interviews.
Many journalists justify this double standard as respect for privacy of the public figure, though such respect is non-existent in the tell-all coverage of heterosexual celebrities. The unfortunate result is to reinforce the link in the minds of many people between being gay and scandal.
Homosexuality has gone from the love that dare not speak its name, to the sex that dare not be asked about. It's telling that a reporter who wouldn't hesitate to ask a straight celebrity about who he's dating would consider asking the same question to a closeted celebrity as prying into his sex life.
In reality, asking a female celeb if she has a girlfriend is no more and no less intruding into her bedroom than asking if she has a boyfriend. And simply asking "the question" and reporting the answer is not the equivalent of "outing," as many in the press seem to believe.
Outing involves reporting that someone is gay despite their refusal to answer the question or their insistence that they are straight. It's understandably controversial, and involves weighing the supposed hypocrisy of the closeted public figure against how private the evidence is of the person's homosexuality.
It's not outing to merely ask the question and report the answer. It's what journalists do every day. And in those answers, the public can draw its own conclusions.
"American Idol" runner-up Clay Aiken breezed through hundreds of media profiles without being asked if he's gay. Only after an ex-Marine went to the tabloids with evidence of an online hook-up has the mainstream media began to press Aiken to respond to the rumors.
Now for Aiken to talk openly about being gay, he would also be admitting to the tawdry online hookup, a double-whammy he wouldn't have faced if pressed on the issue before news of the scandal broke.
Instead, his tortured answers speak for themselves. "It doesn't matter what I say," he told People magazine in a cover story last month. "People are going to believe what they want."
If the press begins to ask the question more routinely, and not in the middle of scandal, then public figures from politics to entertainment are more likely to craft their message in a way that's closer to the truth, rather than dig themselves into a hole by repeatedly insisting they're heterosexual.
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