Writer: Media more open on homosexuality

by Nancy Ngo

Higher visibility of issues like the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres’ character in this week’s “Ellen” episode leads one writer to conclude that media are becoming more comfortable with discussions of homosexuality.
Michelangelo Signorile, well-known for “outing” closeted public figures, including late publisher Malcolm Forbes and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Pete Williams, speaks today at Coffman Memorial Union on the role of the media in covering homosexuality.
“Though my position didn’t change on ‘outing,’ now the media has changed. They’re now covering Ellen,” Signorile said.
Signorile sparked discussion when he wrote about the term “outing,” coined by Time magazine. He said that though “outing” stuck with the media as a reference for exposing homosexuality of public figures, he prefers a different word.
“We tried to term it ‘equalizing,'” Signorile said, “equalizing the discussion in the media of heterosexuality and homosexuality in regard to public figures.”
Signorile said outing carries a certain negative connotation with it. “It was said in a way (by the media) that we were dragging people out of the closet without any criteria of privacy.”
He also emphasizes the distinction between outing private individuals and officials who are already in the public eye.
Being a public figure, he said, is one of the two criteria the media should use for deciding whether to reveal a person’s homosexuality.
“Everyone should come out of the closet at their own pace,” he said. “And that privacy does exist until you become a public figure.” Signorile said when people become public figures, their lives are open to media scrutiny.
The other criterion, he said, is the relevancy of homosexuality to larger societal issues. Signorile said that it was ethical for him to out former assistant defense secretary Pete Williams because he was involved in a government institution that dismisses gays and lesbians. His “outing” of Williams, Signorile said, led to a large discussion of gays in the military.
“To me, it is both ethical and proper to report facts to the public when the public needs to know facts that are relevant,” he said.
Signorile is also well-recognized for “outing” former magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes. He said though he disclosed Forbes as a homosexual before he died, most of the media rush was after his death, which made it even more ethical for Signorile to “out” him.
“My goal was to correct the historical record before a slew of biographies came in,” he said.
Signorile began to expose people’s homosexuality when he began questioning the criteria media organizations use for reporting about the lives of public figures.
“Anything is not off limits, particularly when you were reporting on their heterosexual lives,” he said. Signorile added that media now report on issues ranging from who a public figure is dating to with whom they are having an extra-marital affair.
“The one area that was just totally off-limits was reporting on people’s homosexual lives,” he said. “I began to challenge that if we’re going to hold public figures to a certain standard, then their privacy should be equal.”
Now that the media are covering more gay-related issues, as the discussion of “Ellen” indicates, Signorile said he has moved to covering other issues besides coming out.
At the presentation tonight, Signorile will briefly discuss his most recent book “Life Outside,” which explores body idealization in the gay male culture.