Blogs > Cliopatria > Outings and hypocrisy

Sep 15, 2004 4:39 pm

Outings and hypocrisy

I live in the congressional district of Adam Schiff (D-Glendale), but I'm only a few miles from the neighboring district of Congressman David Dreier (R-La Verne). Congressman Dreier, one of the highest ranking California Republicans in Washington, is now being"outed" as a gay man by a number of publications, including Hustler Magazine. See here, here, and here. A former student of mine who is active in California politics told me in 1998 that Dreier was gay, and for that reason would never run for senate or the governorship. Some folks think it's remarkable that it's taken this long to come out (as it were...)

I loathe the idea of"outing" someone. I am a firm supporter of gay and lesbian rights, and I am happy to work to defeat any legislator of any sexual identity who opposes those rights (which Dreier does). That said, I'm a great believer that one's private life and one's public life do not necessarily have to reflect the same values. That sounds like an endorsement of hypocrisy, and on one level, I suppose it is.

Historians will happily tell their students the stories of great figures from the past (usually men), whose private lives were appalling and whose public service exemplary. (My favorite example is always Caesar Augustus, to whom we credit the Pax Romana, who issued edicts against adultery, and who had a stunning appetite for twelve year-old girls). Americans (unlike Europeans) are troubled by this. (Obviously, I'm troubled too by Augustus's abusive behavior -- but he is a colorful extreme.) We persist (sometimes for murky theological reasons, sometimes for pop psychological ones) in insisting that our leaders have coherence between their public pronouncements and their private behavior. I don't think that's healthy. I think it excludes from leadership those who might have tremendous chaos in their private life, but who might have exceptional gifts to bring to the sphere of public service.

Full disclosure: I take this personally. Here's why:

I've been divorced three times. I teach women's history. Are my credentials as a teacher of feminist history and theory called into question because of my failed relationships with women? Does the fact that I have repeatedly"fallen short of the mark" in my private life mean that I cannot still advocate for the pursuit of that mark? I've spent years and years struggling to match my life and my language, and Lord be praised, I've come a long, long way. But I don't think my personal affairs need to be exemplary for me to be an effective professor, even in a field (like gender studies) where the lines between the personal and the academic realms are always blurred.

Of course, I acknowledge that there is a difference between the kind of hypocrisy of which I write and the actions of Rep. Dreier. When I fail in my private life, few people are hurt. My students, should they come to know of my failings, may be disillusioned -- but I'm not directly injuring them by failing to live a life of complete integrity. On the other hand, when Dreier votes for legislation that is harmful to the LGBTQ community, his lack of wholeness is doing colossal damage. That difference, I suppose, may justify"outing" him. As so often, I'm conflicted.

If I were to run for public office, I would expect my troubled personal history to become a campaign issue. Fortunately, I long ago let go of such ambitions!

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More Comments:

Derek Charles Catsam - 9/17/2004

Hugo --
Here is a problem: is your ability to teach women's history infected by divorces? No. There is nothing prima facie misogynistic about getting divorced. Failed relationships are not a failure on gender. But what if it were discovered that you had hit one of those wives? Then, yes, your ability to teach women's history might well be circumscribed.
I oppose outing politicians too, in the abstract, but those politicians who use their status (wealth, power, connections) to engage in activities that they would condemn others for, and more to the point, which they would prohibit among those without the wealth, power, connections? That is a different kettle of fish.

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