It’s never OK to force someone out of the closet—even an anti-gay politician

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Meet Randy Boehning, a Republican Assemblyman from the great state of North Dakota. You probably hadn’t heard of him until last week—unless you were in his legislative district—when he exploded into the media as a Grindr user outed him in the wake of an anti-gay vote in the legislature. Boehning, it turns out, was sending unsolicited dick pics even as he was voting against anti-discrimination legislation

Once we’ve all had a good laugh over his name, let’s talk about retaliatory outings, because this isn’t the first time a politician or public figure has been outed. There’s a popular public notion that the private lives of public figures are reasonable subjects of public speculation, particularly when they’re doing things like being incredibly hypocritical, which Boehning certainly appears to be, as it’s hard to see how a gay man could vote against a law intended to protect the gay community in good conscience. 

But it’s not that simple. Outing is outing no matter who is involved, and it’s not OK. If it’s supposed to somehow force a politician to change his attitudes, it’s not going to be effective, and it’s certainly going to scare other gay politicians deeper into the closet—out of the fear that their personal lives might be exposed, too. It’s little more than a public circus act: Let’s all sneer at the anti-gay gay politician because he’s such a hypocrite.

It’s little more than a public circus act: Let’s all sneer at the anti-gay gay politician because he’s such a hypocrite.

The story here is rather tangled. Here’s what we do know: Boehning voted against a piece of legislation intended to offer more legal protections to the LGBTQ community, for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment. Grindr user Dustin Smith, 21, realized that “Top Man!,” the guy he’d been flirting with for over a year, was the self-same lawmaker who’d just slapped down gay rights in North Dakota. So he went to the paper

“How can you discriminate against the person you’re trying to pick up?” he explained when discussing his reasoning behind outing the politician. 

Boehning didn’t respond at first, but eventually did go public with a statement that was surprisingly frank: “That’s what gay guys do on gay sites, don’t they?” he responded. “That’s how things happen on Grindr. It’s a gay chat site. It’s not the first thing you do on that site. That’s what we do, exchange pics on the site.”

He also says he’s attracted to women, and while he didn’t explicitly indicate how he identifies, it’s likely he’s bisexual, which would make him one among only a handful of out bisexual politicians in America. While he may have been forcibly outed, it’s clear that he experiences a certain sense of relief: “The 1,000-pound gorilla has been lifted. I have to confront it at some point.”

But here’s where things start to get really weird. Boehning’s story on why he voted against the bill in the first place keeps shifting. First, he said that he had a duty to his constituents and that the residents of his district, which includes Fargo, N.D., had clearly expressed their opinions on the subject of gay rights. 

Fair enough—I have a problem with people who have a problem with gay rights, but one of the functions of a representative democracy is that constituents are supposed to receive representation by their lawmakers. I’m upset when my lawmaker votes for a bill I oppose or against one I support, so I’d be hypocritical if I didn’t at least respect this reasoning. 

Outing is outing no matter who is involved, and it’s not OK.

But that’s not the only reason he gave. Boehning claimed the bill might go against the state constitution (setting it up for legal challenges) and that it contained vague clauses he has concerns about. In other words, he’d totally vote for an anti-discrimination bill, it’s just that it can’t be this one, because it’s a bad bill. You know how it goes. 

Notably, according to Inforum, Boehning might have voted against the bill simply because he doesn’t have a problem with discrimination, even as a queer man: 

Asked whether he would be personally concerned about being discriminated against in the areas of housing, workplace or public accommodation, Boehning, who lives in a rented Fargo apartment, said landlords have the right to do as they see fit.

There’s a common assumption that if you’re a member of a social group that experiences discrimination and hostile attitudes, you’re automatically aligned with all members of that group. Many LGBQ people (as well as the trans community, but this was a bill specifically focused on sexual orientation, not gender) support anti-discrimination legislation because they believe it is unconstitutional as well as unethical and amoral to treat people as second-class citizens. 

However, that’s not the case with everyone, and it sounds like perhaps Boehning doesn’t take issue with discrimination; perhaps that’s because he’s a middle-class white man, a member of a demographic that comes with considerable privileges to balance out potential discrimination. Now that he’s been forcibly outed, we’ll see how that changes. 

Now that he’s been forcibly outed, we’ll see how that changes. 

The tangled web around Boehning and the reasons why he really voted against the bill may never be fully picked apart, but the fact that he was outed is incontrovertible, no matter why. Forcibly outing anyone is indefensible, no matter who they are. Yes, Boehning sounds like a raging hypocrite for voting against gay rights while picking people up on Grindr, even if he has a rationale for his vote that transcends his sexual orientation. Yes, it’s frustrating that he doesn’t support equal rights for his fellow gays and lesbians. 

But no, it still wasn’t acceptable to out him. There’s a tendency to believe that if something is done in the name of “justice,” it’s reasonable, even if it’s normally opposed in other settings. That metric excuses the doxing of harassers, for example, on the grounds that they’re getting what’s coming to them—even if it exposes them to personal risk. That metric excuses barraging people’s families and employers on the grounds that they should know about someone’s perceived (or real) sins. And it creates a very slippery slope. 

Unless we are talking about deeds that constitute an ethics violation, private lives are private, as are activities that are not directly relevant to a person’s job. Likewise, harassing or outing people with differing political opinions isn’t acceptable. I’m angry when people harass the editors and publications I work with (as well as my family) because they don’t like what I do, and I’m angry when people harass the employers and families of conservative douchebags simply because they’re jerks—because both are not OK. 

Had Boehning’s sex life somehow been relevant to legislative ethics, then it would have been reasonable to report it to officials—as, for example, if he was accepting payoffs to vote on specific legislation. But the fact that he’s bisexual and he votes against LGBQ rights isn’t reason enough to force him out of the closet.

Boehning had a right to a personal life and had the right to determine when and if he wanted to come out. 

Boehning had a right to a personal life and had the right to determine when and if he wanted to come out. Being a public figure doesn’t make him public property, even when he’s behaving abhorrently—though when an LGBQ anti-discrimination bill arises again, which it likely will, it will be curious to see how he votes. As an outed lawmaker, will he stand by his decision to vote against such bills on the grounds he cited this time around? Will he change his mind?

 What, exactly, is accomplished by outing him? The bill still failed, and now Boehning has been “caught with his pants down,” as gay publications mockingly put it in their celebratory glee over seeing a bigoted politician being outed in the national news. It’s intriguing to note that they don’t exhibit the same level of glee when other closeted LGBTQ people are forced out into the open. 

He says he’s relieved that he doesn’t have to live with the shadow of a possible outing hanging over him, but that’s a rather terrible position to be in. How else are you going to publicly respond to your forced outing?

S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with numerous publication credits, including the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.

Photo via william.neuheisel/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.